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The proposed 10-year tenure for DGs: A much-needed intervention to ensure a professional and experienced public administration

Acting Public Service and Administration Minister Thulas Nxesi.

Acting Public Service and Administration Minister Thulas Nxesi.

Published May 23, 2022

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OPINION: One of the admissions by President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Zondo Commission is that competent and highly skilled state officials either left the civil service or were sidelined as they refused to execute certain illegal instructions.

By Kashif Wicomb

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It is trite that our country’s problems are not due to policy gaps and lack of policies, but are rather due to the lack and/or delay in implementing policies.

The Acting Public Service and Administration Minister, Thulas Nxesi, in his recent budget speech announced that the National Implementation Framework towards the Professionalisation of Public Service has now been finalised for consideration by the Cabinet.

It proposes radical public sector reforms which will include, among others, stabilising the political-administrative interface across the public sector by extending the tenure of heads of departments (HODs), known as directors-general, to 10 years and decisive action on consequence management, especially in dealing with mediocrity, unethical behaviour, and corrupt and criminal acts committed in the public service.

One of the admissions by President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Zondo Commission is that competent and highly skilled state officials either left the civil service or were sidelined as they refused to execute certain illegal instructions.

We should now be comfortable that the interference by political heads in the day-to-day operations of government departments and SOEs, among others, will be minimised so that officials can be held accountable for their actions, good or bad.

The Progressive Professionals Forum and the nation wholeheartedly pin their hopes on the capability of the state to deliver on its Professionalisation Framework. A developmental state such as ours must be constituted of not only technically sound public officials, but also officials who possess unwavering high ethics, honesty, and batho pele.

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The short tenure of directors-general results in an often neglected reality that institutional knowledge and experience is lost if directors-general are replaced every five years when new ministers are appointed to the Cabinet. It is imperative that directors-general remain in place especially beyond the term of a minister in order to ensure continuity and prevent a drain of institutional knowledge and prevent a “fresh start” every five years and in some instances even shorter due to Cabinet reshuffles.

To also state the obvious, our country needs and demands civil servants who are duly qualified, experienced, and patriotic.

As an example, according to an Infrastructure South Africa report, South Africa has more than 200 municipalities with no engineers.

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Our energy supply, rail system, road network and water supply are on the brink of collapse or have already collapsed. Nationally, our country has rolling blackouts of up to six hours a day. In Gauteng, the water supply is not pure. In the Western Cape, the central rail line running through areas such as Mitchells Plain, Khayelitsha and Philippi has been inoperable since 2019. In KwaZulu-Natal, water blackouts are now being experienced. Our country can also not afford to maintain the culture that working for the state and SOEs is safe employment up and until you die.

The recent KZN national disaster has just reminded us that we can no longer move at a snail’s pace. We need climate-resilient infrastructure to prevent future disasters.

For the state and ruling party to fulfil its mandate of “bolstering the state’s capacity”, it must appoint persons who are professionally equipped and fit for purpose.

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Senior government officials are very often political appointments. A newly appointed minister will appoint his/her preferred director-general who of course serve in his/her office at the behest of the minister and therefore is accountable to the minister. These senior government officials in many instances receive “political instructions” from their political seniors to implement decisions that are later found to be illegal and in contravention with the Public Finance Management Act.

When these decisions hit the public domain, politicians often choose to take zero responsibility and their defence has always been that they do not have authority and have no “signing powers” and therefore they cannot be held accountable.

We must add that the Progressive Professionals Forum is not opposed to a ruling party appointing persons who support its policies and strategic objectives in senior government positions. This is the case in all governments of the world, including the DA in the Western Cape, who also does this.

However, this position does not mean and should not mean that less competent or poorly qualified persons should be appointed.

Chapter 10 of the Constitution stipulates that public administration must be governed by the democratic values and principles enshrined in the Constitution, including the following principles:

(a) A high standard of professional ethics must be promoted and maintained.

(b) Efficient, economic and effective use of resources must be promoted.

(c) Public administration must be development-oriented.

(f) Public administration must be accountable.

(h) Good human-resource management and career-development practices, to maximise human potential, must be cultivated.

(i) Public administration must be broadly representative of the South African people, with employment and personnel management practices based on ability, objectivity, fairness, and the need to redress the imbalances of the past to achieve broad representation.

The above principles apply to administration in every sphere of government, organs of state, and public enterprises.

The Constitution of the Republic asserts public administration must be broadly representative of the South African people, with employment and personnel management practices based on ability, objectivity, fairness, and the need to redress the imbalances of the past to achieve broad representation. Above all, it calls for the public administration to be governed by democratic values, which means, arguably, the manifesto of the majority of voters must be translated from promise to policy and implementation.

The Professionalisation Framework promises the cultivation of good human-resource management and career-development practices, to maximise human potential.

The Progressive Professionals Forum has for some time advocated for and lobbied the state and ruling party for the permanent and/or long-term appointment of professional, competent and patriotic government officials. We therefore welcome the pending approval of the National Implementation Framework towards the Professionalisation of Public Service by the Cabinet. The 10-year term for HODs will go a long way in ensuring greater stability and less vulnerability to political interference. Indeed, the professionalisation of the public administration – as articulated by President Cyril Ramaphosa – is critical to building state capacity, and it’s something that all stakeholders should embrace and support.

*Kashif Wicomb is the president of the Progressive Professionals Forum.

Kashif Wicomb

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