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Picture: 123RF/iofoto
Picture: 123RF/iofoto

The Public Service Commission probe into almost 2,400 senior government employees who do not have the qualifications required for the positions they occupy should be welcomed as a step in the right direction — and confirmation that the professionalisation of the sector is no pipe dream. 

One conclusion that can be drawn from the number of unqualified government officials is that some, if not most, of the country’s governance problems are self-inflicted. A slight allowance can be made due to the possibility that some of the senior managers might have failed to ensure their qualifications were updated on the personnel & salaries (Persal) management system, and others were appointed before the public service regulations were instituted in 2016. Yet the numbers remain exceptionally high and unacceptable, as they suggest that up to a quarter of senior managers are not qualified  for the positions they occupy.

Picture: Sandile Ndlovu
Picture: Sandile Ndlovu

The SA Police Service has the highest number at 214, followed by justice & correctional services with 144 officials who do have the required qualifications. These men and women are supposed to lead the justice, crime prevention & security cluster and ensure that everything goes by the book.

It is shocking that the Gauteng health department leads the pack in the provincial category, with 50 officials who do not have the required qualifications (“Qualifications of more than 2,000 senior officials to be checked”, October 10). 

The Gauteng health department’s core mandate is to improve the health of the population, improve health services and secure better value for money. It is inconceivable to think that a senior manager with questionable qualifications can be expected to provide strategic support and direction to Thembisa Hospital, which has been affected by ageing and dilapidated infrastructure and a shortage of staff. 

A public servant with questionable qualifications will find it hard to resist or reject illegal instructions from a politician or superior, knowing full well that they shouldn’t be in the position in the first place. Having properly qualified public servants is imperative for our developmental state, which should be staffed not only by technically sound public officials but also people with unwavering high ethics, honesty and batho pele (people first) principles.

Illegal instructions

Professionals in the public sector often receive “political instructions” from their political seniors to implement decisions that are eventually flagged by the auditor-general as irregular expenditure and maladministration.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa testified at the Zondo state-capture commission in August 2021, one of the admissions he made was that many competent and highly skilled state officials either left the public service or were sidelined if they refused to perform certain illegal instructions. Without qualifications to re-enter the job market an argument can be made that those without qualifications will do anything to keep their jobs and income, and are therefore most vulnerable to being coerced into wrongdoing.

A public service that lacks the requisite qualifications renders the state vulnerable to corruption and could enable a repeat of the state-capture era. Interference by political heads in the daily operations of departments and state-owned enterprises (SOEs) can easily be stopped if the right people are employed.

The 2021 local government elections highlighted the reality that South Africans have run out of patience and are no longer prepared to tolerate incompetence. And rightly so. The country’s energy supply, rail system, road network and water supply are on the brink of collapse or have already collapsed. The country is being subjected to national rolling blackouts.

In Gauteng, the water supply is not reliable or pure. In the Western Cape, the central passenger rail line running through areas such as Mitchells Plain, Khayelitsha and Philippi has been inoperable since 2019. KwaZulu-Natal is having water blackouts.

Our country needs and demands public servants who are duly qualified, experienced and patriotic. To fulfil its mandate of “bolstering the state’s capacity” the governing party must appoint people who are professionally qualified and experienced so that service delivery is not compromised. SA can also not afford the culture that working for the state and SOEs is safe employment up and until you resign or die.

To break the cycle of poor and zero service delivery the following must take place:

  • Professional, competent and duly qualified people must be appointed in the civil service.
  • Appointees must support the principles and policies of the administration.
  • De-link appointments of directors general from the term of office of ministers. This will ensure continuity and avoid senior public servants who owe their employment to politicians.
  • Public representatives must have a minimum qualification, including the ability to analyse budgets, understand technical reports and have a firm understanding of bylaws and how local government functions.
  • Public servants, MPs, members of provincial legislatures and councillors must enter into performance management agreements with key performance indicators (KPIs) that are annually reviewed.
  • Should KPIs not be met, consequence management must be implemented, and if necessary people removed from the positions.

The country is pinning its hopes on the capability of the state to deliver on its manifesto. For that to happen, we need the state to employ the right, properly qualified people. It is that simple.

• Wicomb is president of the Progressive Professionals Forum and a member of the president’s BBBEE Advisory Council.

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