ANC supporters. Picture: REUTERS
ANC supporters. Picture: REUTERS

Over the past few months, since being appointed the DA’s shadow minister for public service and administration, I have done a lot of digging aimed at ascertaining the true state of the SA public service. What I have found paints a deeply disturbing picture.

The most pressing crisis facing SA is our precipitous economic decline. Although people sometimes think of the public and private sectors as distinct spheres, the reality is that the two are deeply intertwined, as we’ve seen most recently with the Bosasa scandal.

The government is the largest procurer of goods and services in the country, which means that its behaviour plays a fundamental role in shaping economic outcomes and the prosperity of our country. If it is acting corruptly, it is incentivising corruption in the private sector.

On the one hand, this means that a well-run and capable public sector has the potential to boost the economic fortunes of the private sector and the prosperity of the country as a whole. Conversely, a corrupt and mismanaged public sector can be fatal to any prospect of economic recovery. Unfortunately, the latter applies to the SA of 2019.

The ANC’s mismanagement of the public sector is one of the root causes of our economic malaise, and also a key reason there is no recovery on the horizon. Most obviously, the staggering public wage bill of R550bn — equal to 35% of all government spending — combined with unsustainable debt levels and failing SOEs, has caused the country’s credit rating and currency to plunge.

But the public sector’s complicity in our economic decline goes even deeper. Despite empty rhetoric about wanting to revive economic growth, the state is actually directly undermining the ability of businesses to survive and thrive. The state cannot even carry out something as simple — but vital — as paying timeously for goods and services. National and provincial government departments currently owe SA businesses — the engine of economic growth — more than R7.1bn in unpaid invoices older than 30 days.

The department of water and sanitation is the single-biggest offender, owing businesses R492m, followed by the department of agriculture owing R99m, and the police owing R24m. Provincial governments also owe businesses a staggering R6.5bn. Gauteng and the Eastern Cape, both provinces run into the ground by the ANC, have failed to pay for services to the tune of R2.6bn and R2.1bn, respectively. No company or economy can grow and create jobs when their biggest customer is a financial delinquent.

But the state is not only actively undermining legitimate businesses; it is also rewarding corruption and criminality. While the ANC cannot pay service providers on time, they seem to have no problem paying billions to public servants illegally doing business with the state.

The Treasury’s 2018 Public Procurement Review found that 2,704 state employees conducted business with national and provincial departments between April 1 2017 and January 31 2018. While it failed to pay service providers the R7.1bn it owes them, the ANC government somehow found ways to spend R8.1bn of public funds to pay companies owned by public servants who conducted business with the state.

Despite this being in direct contravention of the 2014 Public Administration Management Act, public service and administration minister Senzo Mchunu said in response to a parliamentary question that not a single public-service employee had been held accountable or fired for doing business with the state.

The ANC also seems to have no problem paying millions to cadres implicated in misconduct to sit at home. By June 30, the government had already spent at least R26m on the salaries of public servants placed on “precautionary suspension”.

These cadres sit at home for months collecting millions in pay while the supposed investigations drag on indefinitely. Gengezi Mgidlana, the former secretary to parliament who has been suspended since mid-2017, continues to “earn” his R2.889m annual salary.

Despite empty political talk about lifestyle audits, the government has no system in place to conduct those, to proactively identify politicians and public servants living beyond their means. In response to a parliamentary question, the public service and administration minister simply stated that his department “is not mandated to conduct lifestyle audits on members of the executive, which includes members of cabinet and deputy ministers”. In other words, the ANC has no intention of combating corruption among its ministers and deputy ministers.

The minister’s reply also revealed that the long-promised technical unit tasked with conducting lifestyle audits on public servants, is not operational and will not do any work until at least 2020. In the words of the minister: “The unit has not yet conducted any disciplinary process against officials as the unit is not yet fully operational.”

In contrast to the well-run DA-led Western Cape, where premier Alan Winde has directed his entire cabinet to undergo lifestyle audits as a proactive measure, there is no practical plan from the ANC to similarly subject politicians or public servants to any lifestyle audits.

Through its unsustainable wage bill, ballooning debt and by failing in its basic duty to pay for goods and services rendered, the ANC government is actively crippling the SA economy and destroying any prospect of recovery. At the same time, it continues to reward malpractice and corruption by paying millions to suspended officials, breaking its promise to conduct lifestyle audits, and failing to hold a single public servant to account for illegally doing business with the state.

Until we conduct a comprehensive public-spending review and enact fundamental reforms to build a lean, efficient and capable state that creates opportunities for South Africans to prosper, the government’s words will ring ever more hollow.

• Schreiber is a DA MP and shadow public service and administration minister.