SA Needs a Transparent, Independent Public Service Free of Political Influence

Cape Times (South Africa), October 22, 2008 | Go to article overview

SA Needs a Transparent, Independent Public Service Free of Political Influence


BYLINE: Kate Lefko-Everett

The Presidency recently released its report on progress achieved mid-way through the second decade of democracy, entitled Towards A Fifteen-Year Review. While highlighting many governance and policy achievements, the review also identifies a number of problems the country continues to face.

Underlying much of the review is a fundamental concern over the quality and integrity of public institutions, and the efficacy of the public service in particular.

The review criticises the "culture and orientation" of the public service, reporting that "too often public servants have been found falling short in service to the public". It also notes weaknesses in the "interface between government and the public", leading to widespread service delivery protests.

The review cites evidence of dwindling confidence in the legitimacy of public institutions. Results of the Markinor Government Performance Barometer in recent years show a consistent decline in public approval for government's ability to make "the right appointments to lead departments and agencies", and to maintain transparency and accountability.

Referring to the criminal justice sector in particular, the review acknowledges public perceptions that "independent institutions have been impacted on by party-political dynamics".

Recently, the politically contested Western Cape produced a telling example of the blurring of lines between public institutions and political parties.

The advertising of more than 100 vacant positions in provincial government provoked furore from the Democratic Alliance (DA), which claimed that the ANC was attempting to fill key positions with party loyalists prior to elections, to ensure that provincial government is "ultimately accountable to Luthuli House" irrespective of political leadership in the province. The DA has called for a moratorium on further appointments, and that contracts due to expire should only be extended until the election.

Premier Lynne Brown maintains that most of these positions are for mid-level IT managers, and that new appointees will be accountable to the public, not the ANC. In a letter to the Cape Times, she argues that it is "ridiculous to suggest that the political leanings of mid-level public servants could be a factor before a decision is taken on whether to hire them or not".

Despite Brown's reassurances, some of the vacant positions do appear sensitive, particularly those related to policy analysis, legislative support, research and strategic advice. However, simply waiting for elections so that incoming leadership can make appointments is also not the best solution.

Rather, we should be returning to questions of what South Africa needs from the public service, and how best these needs can be met.

During the transition to democracy, policy-makers envisaged a transformed public service that replaced the inequities and inefficiencies of the apartheid bureaucracy with new values of impartiality, representation, and professionalism. These values are captured in Section 195 of the Constitution, which also specifies that while the appointment of "a number of persons on policy considerations is not precluded", these must be regulated in legislation.

The 1997 Code of Conduct for the Public Service prohibits public servants from promoting or prejudicing any political party or interest group in fulfilling their duties, and from taking part in political activities in the workplace. The code requires public servants to give honest and impartial advice to higher authorities, irrespective of political leadership.

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SA Needs a Transparent, Independent Public Service Free of Political Influence
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