President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Ian Langsdon/Pool via REUTERS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Ian Langsdon/Pool via REUTERS

Be wary of simple solutions; they often cause the most complex problems. This is the uncomfortable thought I was left with after watching President Cyril Ramaphosa’s testimony at the Zondo commission a few weeks ago, when he argued that "cadre deployment" was needed to cascade ANC politics down into the civil service.

Ramaphosa conceded that the policy had a downside, in that there were instances in which people were appointed to positions they weren’t qualified or suited for.

Still, he insisted that deploying political party members to the civil service "cannot be faulted in principle". It was, he said, a democratic practice followed around the world.

To support his view, Ramaphosa quoted a 2007 OECD governance study which said that "political involvement in administration is essential for the proper functioning of a democracy".

I want to take issue with the president’s less-than-nuanced approach.

For a start, that same OECD paper contains several caveats — one of which is that the public service must be protected against misuse for "partisan purposes".

The president’s claim about this being a "common practice" globally is equally flawed.

Actually, the OECD study points out that it’s critical that civil servants act in a manner that serves the collective rather than a partisan interest — a principle espoused by all 12 member countries, among them SA.

And it’s a point echoed in our constitution, which fundamentally contradicts the notion of any "single-minded cascade of party policy".

An equally important point in that OECD paper is that the principles don’t apply to oversight of arm’s-length agencies, which are "distinctively different". This is significant, if you consider that most of the damage due to cadre employment happened at state-owned enterprises (SOEs) such as Eskom, the SABC and Transnet. At these places it is obvious that the government, as the shareholder, sets the policy. But having done that, the relevant minister then steps back and holds the SOE’s board accountable for ensuring execution of that policy.

Our constitution fundamentally contradicts the notion of any ‘single-minded cascade of party policy’

To suggest, instead, that "deploying cadres" to SOEs is a legitimate tool to "advance policies" is as unsophisticated as using straw to build a house. It hasn’t worked and has only muddied the waters, as "deployees" have clearly failed to act in the best interests of those entities.

In the corporate sector, "cadre deployment" is akin to "representative directors" — the system where people are appointed to a board by a particular interest group.

Yet wherever we see this, it obstructs governance as surely as cadre deployment.

After all, directors have a fiduciary duty to the company and, by extension, all its stakeholders, not just to one group — in the same way that government employees should act for all citizens, not just ANC members.

Consider how this plays out at universities. The Higher Education Act says a university council should include representatives from the academic staff, students, employees and five ministerial appointees.

In practice, it means the representatives often act to advance their group’s agenda, rather than that of the university.

Meetings are unwieldy, as councils consisting of 30 or 40 members endlessly debate issues, lobbying for their constituency, not what’s necessarily good for the university. This hampers effective governance.

Which brings us to the plan mooted by the department of trade, industry & competition to include "representation" of employees on boards. It says there is precedent for this in other countries. In SA we do not have a two-tier board system.

But this lacks context: its fails to explain that boards in Germany, run according to this principle, have a two-tier system, in which a management board reports to a supervisory board.

Intuitively, representation on boards seems laudable — but whether it achieves the aim of giving all stakeholders a say is questionable. Practically, it is not possible to give everyone a seat at the table, so selecting those who "qualify" creates a dilemma. Nor are employees, for example, a homogeneous group, so saying their interests will be "represented" by one or two people isn’t true.

Our accountability systems aren’t working — but grasping at straws is not the way to rebuild our institutions.

The answer is to have professional boards, which consist of ethical members who are competent in the discipline of governance.

Being attuned to stakeholders’ interests is the key to an organisation’s opportunities and risks. Without that, governance won’t happen effectively — and just putting some stakeholder on the board won’t fix it.

Unless someone appointed to a board can balance all these interests holistically for the good of everyone, you won’t build a lasting institution.

It’s the same with cadre deployment — and it’s why anyone hired with just the ANC’s interests in mind will fail to do what’s right for the entire country.

*Ramalho is chair of the King committee on corporate governance in SA

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