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President Cyril Ramaphosa. The president must appoint capable, honest ministers and deputy ministers to lead reform, the writer says. Picture: GULSHAN KHAN/GETTY IMAGES
President Cyril Ramaphosa. The president must appoint capable, honest ministers and deputy ministers to lead reform, the writer says. Picture: GULSHAN KHAN/GETTY IMAGES

SA is at a turning point. To succeed, the new government of national unity (GNU) must rapidly draw millions of marginalised black South Africans into the economy, stimulate growth off a scanty base and ratchet up development.

The challenge is that getting a much-deepened reform agenda off the ground requires a functional, capable state. This is why the Centre for Development and Enterprise’s (CDE) Agenda 2024 priority areas of action for the next government start with fixing the state.

Our first document in this series made the case for a smaller, more functional cabinet and a strengthened presidency. The new report calls on the incoming government to appoint the right people in mission-critical public sector jobs. Putting the best possible people into key positions can accelerate change, boost economic growth and generate millions more jobs. By contrast, putting the wrong people in charge can destroy institutions, as we have seen with devastating effect.

There are excellent senior civil servants in the state, whose commitment and hard work in difficult circumstances is impressive and admirable. Unfortunately, there are also far too many civil servants who are inadequately skilled, demotivated or dishonest.

As the Public Service Commission (PSC) reported earlier this year, there is a lack of professional and technical skills in the public service and many officials see their role as enforcing rules rather than achieving outcomes. According to its head, Somadoda Fikeni, the public sector does not exhibit “the astuteness, agility, capacity or single-mindedness to do its best for the country”.

Reforming the public sector is a major undertaking, and some tentative initiatives to build a more professional public service are in place. The new government needs to turbo-boost the process by focusing on leadership. The president must appoint capable, honest ministers and deputy ministers to lead reform. His cabinet must then ensure the top echelon of the public service — such as directors-general and their deputies — are the best people available to drive and monitor effective execution, particularly in key departments and critical state institutions.

Good leadership can help stimulate improved morale, enhanced compliance and greater initiative-taking

With the right people in charge, dramatic changes in the behaviour of other civil servants are possible. Good leadership can help stimulate improved morale, enhanced compliance and greater initiative-taking. By contrast, a weak or inappropriate leader is unlikely to appoint excellent people or encourage behaviour that will exceed their own performance. Leadership has a large role to play in determining the performance of government departments and institutions.

While there have been good or even exceptional ministers in the past 30 years, most have been chosen based on patronage, factional and regional considerations, and the goal of cementing or expanding political alliances. These factors, rather than leadership abilities, integrity and the right skills for the job, have been decisive in determining who gets appointed.

Of course, across the world political advisers accompany a new government into office. These people have an important role to play, but their number and roles must be clearly defined. Cabinet positions are inherently political appointments, and that won’t change. It must be acknowledged, though, that this has allowed a surfeit of ineffective or compromised ministers to hold office, and these weaknesses have been transmitted downwards through the public service.

To initiate the process of better leadership appointments, the president should issue a statement at the outset of the seventh administration unequivocally indicating the government’s opposition to and termination of cadre deployment. Ending cadre deployment is an essential first step for the rebuilding of an honest, effective public service.

After that, the focus of the new government must be on putting the best possible people into key positions. The CDE has identified about 130 “mission critical” jobs that will be essential for implementing the first phase of the new government’s reform agenda. Wherever possible, officials in these positions should be asked to reapply for their posts and appointed only after rigorous recruitment processes.

These posts include those of cabinet ministers, deputy ministers, directors-general and their deputies in the first phase priority portfolios of finance; trade, industry & competition; police; justice & constitutional development; and employment & labour. The CEOs, chairs and other senior officials of state-owned companies and institutions housed in priority portfolios are also considered mission critical.


Two other reforms that should be implemented to promote merit-based appointments and protect civil servants from undue political interference are the strengthening of the induction training of civil servants and giving the PSC a stronger role in hiring processes for senior managers in the public service.

The Nyukela certificate is a recently adopted compulsory entry exam for senior management based on a 120-hour course taught and managed by the National School of Government. A new government should set up an independent review of the Nyukela certificate by top local and international experts. The review must ensure that the course and exam are stringent enough to achieve their stated goals. If this is not the case, the government should draw on competence tests used in the private sector to set more rigorous standards.

Another important step proposed by public service reform advocates should be to give the PSC a strong oversight role over a newly formulated, multi-stage appointments process. In the case of directors-general and other senior positions, job specifications should be developed by the PSC in consultation with the minister. In this new set-up, which moves away from the president appointing all directors-general in consultation with cabinet, the PSC will run the hiring process and chair the selection committee, with the appointment in turn made by the relevant minister. Each stage of the appointments process should be as transparent as possible.

Finally, we recommend two actions to make it easier and quicker to manage people out of public service employment. To speed up the lengthy process of dismissing officials suspected of corruption, we propose the establishment of a permanent disciplinary tribunal chaired by a retired judge. The tribunal should operate on an inquisitorial basis and be empowered to dismiss officials if the judge believes the evidence meets the “balance of probabilities” standard. It should not need to wait for the completion of criminal investigations and prosecutions.

Second, to remove obstacles in the Labour Relations Act that make it difficult to dismiss senior civil servants who are unsuitable, incompetent or unethical, the new government should amend the act such that above a threshold salary dismissals are always deemed to be fair so long as a prescribed notice period is given. The goal is to strengthen leadership in the government while also ensuring greater common commitment to the reform mission essential to the new government’s success. This can be achieved through this amendment if undertaken sensibly in conjunction with our other proposed reforms.

Achieving an increasingly prosperous, inclusive country requires a well-oiled state machine. That in turn depends on hard-working, skilled public servants executing their responsibilities conscientiously. By eliminating cadre deployment and putting the best possible people into mission-critical public sector jobs, strengthening the PSC, improving entry exams for senior bureaucrats, establishing a disciplinary tribunal for corruption-accused officials, and making it easier to replace civil servants in senior leadership positions, the GNU will have taken vital steps to ensure the success of its stated mission.

• Bernstein is CDE executive director.

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