The commitment by President Cyril Ramaphosa to reconfigure the state is a welcome measure, but a painful reminder that the government seems adept at scoring its own goals.
As far back as 1998, when Thabo Mbeki had taken office, Professor William Makgoba, then chairperson of the Medical Research Council, wrote a prescient piece in which he advocated streamlining government operations by slashing the number of ministries. To be exact, Prof Makgoba’s piece, titled, “Less gravy will sweeten the pot”, was penned on the March 13, 1998.
Makgoba argued that the rising costs of the civil service - 27 ministries - and a bloated public sector wage bill portended dire social and economic consequences.
More than two decades on, the same question and attendant nagging problems persist, compounded by a sluggish growth dynamic.
The big question now is: why hasn’t the government got it right? And, more fundamentally, can it?
Serious weaknesses in planning and a lack of political will are evidenced in a plethora of high-level interventions in the ensuing decade since 1998 in critical “apex” priority areas that merely reinforced the fact of poor planning.
This is a direct result of government failure to act by streamlining the civil service and realigning service institutions and delivery capacity to the demands of growth and transformation, gaps that look set to widen as more pressure is brought to bear on rising costs and the shrinking capacity of the public service.
In our numerous policy statements and engagements, Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA) has argued that the problem comes down to the progressive misalignment of the economic imperative of transforming the structure of the economy and catalysing growth with the size and capacity of government departments and state institutions responsible for delivering services.
The errors are crystal clear. Since the late 1990s, the transformation of the state apparatus has been used as a pretext for patronage in what is now periodic and rather costly trade-offs over the ratio of the public sector wage bill to GDP.
The problem thus posed must confront an unfortunate legacy of misalignments and patronage deeply embedded in the civil service. This pattern of development - or underdevelopment, as the case may be - tends to reduce the civil service to a shock absorber of policy and implementation limitations in what is now widely acknowledged as an act of patronage.
A key challenge has emerged since the late 1990s: that of transcending the often adversarial and narrow interests of public servants and building a wider bridge to - or constellation of trust relations and social alliances around - the strategic and programmatic goals of the government and its citizen stakeholders. Although a comprehensive transformative and pro-growth policy perspective already exists in the NDP, the challenge remains of how to give strategic content and practical meaning, beyond the rhetoric in official policy declaratives, to progressive assertions of an efficient state.
The problem, therefore, does not lie entirely in weak policy implementation; it is in fact largely systemic in nature.
The situation in turn carries with it the most fearsome consequence - state failure. As Ramaphosa moves closer to setting up his cabinet, he must be guided by the lesson that leaders cannot simply choose to lead in a style that suits them.
South Africans do not want incompetent, corrupt and morally bankrupt ministers. South Africans want bold, inspiring and ethical leaders. We have been embarrassed enough in the global stage - thanks to that man from Nkandla.
* Mohale is CEO of BLSA
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.