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Cadre deployment was birthed at a time when a Herculean effort was required to transform the apartheid state machinery. Today it has come to be associated with cronyism, state capture and corruption.

To ensure a healthy dialogue we need to recognise its roots, what has been achieved and the efforts being made to overcome the weaknesses and excesses of such practice. 

The struggle attracted the professional and black middle classes. Many young people who fled into exile, especially from the “1976 generation”, were encouraged to complete their studies through bursaries provided by solidarity movements and governments.

During the transition period between the ANC’s unbanning in 1990 and the 1994 elections, many cadres were sent for further training at places such as the Clingendael Institute (the Dutch international relations centre) or joined British mandarins at Westminster in various government departments. 

Given the imperative of transformation and the resources at its disposal, the ANC deployed these cadres into government after winning the 1994 election. This was no marching of a liberation army into the capital, wholesale ransacking of the ancien regime and its replacement by a horde of barbarians. 

Yet despite a honeymoon after 1994, by the end of his first six months in office former president Nelson Mandela would complain to the ANC’s 49th conference in December 1994 that “ours was not a planned entry into government. Except for the highest echelons, there was no planned deployment of cadres.”

The ANC was concerned that individuals were using their association with the party to push themselves into political positions, sowing the seeds of patronage networks with all the corruption that comes with them.

To counter this, an ANC cadre deployment policy was developed and adopted in 1998. It held that “in our participation in institutions — whether of the state or civil society — as cadres of the movement, we should have respect for the internal processes of the structures and institutions we are part of”. 

I wish I could end today’s column by simply saying the rest is history. Sadly, we have come through the grubby milestones of state capture, the Guptas and the Zondo state-capture commission revelations. This has directly affected state capacity and morale among public servants, as people of integrity and whistle-blowers fear recrimination, frivolous disciplinary actions and even assassinations.

Since the government adopted the National Development Plan in 2012, “professionalisation of the public service” has been seen as the antidote for the sleaze and cronyism that seeped into the body politic.

It would take almost a decade before we came to see concrete steps being taken, such as the framework document crafted by the National School of Government. The document is located within chapter 10 of the constitution, which states that one of the basic values and principles governing public administration is a high standard of professional ethics.

In his February 2023 opening of parliament speech, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that “in response to the state capture commission and in line with the framework for the professionalisation of the public service, integrity assessments will become a mandatory requirement for recruitment to the public service and entry exams will be introduced”.

The consequent Public Service Commission Bill recently approved by the cabinet will commit the commission to co-ordinating the implementation of the framework document and ensuring that qualified people are appointed to senior management positions.

The ANC’s December 2022 conference placed “addressing state capture and corruption” at the centre of its renewal programme, and gave its integrity commission the task of examining individuals named in the Zondo commission.

Oft quoted as this line may be, we could all do well by recalling Madiba’s words: “Whether you change the linen or stitch up wounds, cook the food or dispense the medicines, it is in your hands to help build a public service worthy of all those who gave their lives for the dream of democracy.” 

• Abba Omar is director of operations at the Mapungubwe Institute.

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