Good public servants bear the brunt of politicking

by Thobile Madonsela | Published on 26 June 2019 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

President Cyril Ramaphosa was mostly applauded for the composition of his cabinet, if only for the reason that he apparently managed to balance (or rather tap-dance around) competing and controversial personalities, interests and factions. He ‘played the game’ well, say the political commentators and journalists watching from the sidelines. But if politics is a game, and every game has a loser, who is the loser here? Of course one could point to the country as a whole, but it is also important to focus on those who feel the impact most directly: public servants. Public servants, who perform the administrative functions of government, must work with these political appointees who are supposed to give direction and support so that operational processes run smoothly and in accordance with good governance.  

Union buildings

 If only that were the case. In research conducted in 2015 and again in 2018, The Ethics Institute found that political pressure was the number one reason why policies and procedures are bypassed in the public sector. In the most recent survey, over half of the respondents agreed that ‘not adhering to policies and procedures’ indeed occurs in their workplace, and 76% indicated that ‘pressure from politicians’ was the reason why. It would be naïve to paint all mid-level public servants with the same brush, as innocent victims of others’ ambitions. No doubt many are (at best) pliant and (at worst) self-interested. Yet these statistics indicate that the lion’s share of the responsibility for flouting rules lies with political leaders and senior managers.

Policies and procedures are in place to safeguard the mechanisms of governance, risk and compliance, which in turn safeguard the ethical delivery of services. There should be no tacit discretionary option, given the right sort of pressures, whether to apply them or not. The interests of politicians cannot be given precedence over the administrators’ first call of duty to serve the needs of citizens.

Consider the case of MEC Faith Mazibuko, whose “combi courts” rampage exposed both her narrow political goals and the vicious manner with which she speaks to her administrative staff. In the (now infamous) recording, administrators can be heard telling the MEC that it would be impossible to meet the deadline because of tender processes that need to be followed. Her reaction was to insult them, personally, because it was her duty to win votes, and they were failing her. One worrying thought is that it just so happened that this particular scene was recorded and shared with the media, and that this sort of thing may well be common.

Unfortunately, good public servants often find themselves in the unenviable position of being ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’, because it is detrimental to their careers to go against the will of political leaders, but they also stand to be held responsible for policy violations. As for the less well-intentioned public servant, there is hardly a struggle: colluding with the leader to circumvent due process without question is a way to gain favour, and other consequences are not considered.

On 20 June 2019, President Ramaphosa delivered his official State of the Nation Address, or SONA, in which he declared: “We want a corps of skilled and professional public servants of the highest moral standards – and dedicated to the public service”. Of course we do. But what about the politicians? It was a glaring omission that a similar statement about the “highest moral standards” was not made regarding political appointees. These include the Ministers and their Deputies, the Members of the Executive Council (MECs) and Premiers of the nine provinces. General points were made about eradicating corruption in government, but only public servants got a special mention.

Greater attention needs to be paid where the biggest risks lie. Clearly, the biggest risks to the realisation of the New Dawn are more at the political level, and less at the administrative one. Positive changes in the former will lead to positive changes in the latter, not the other way around.

Our tap-dancing President cannot expect changes in the delivery of services to take place when he continues to award positions of power to those individuals whose priorities lie elsewhere. The old adage “the tone is set at the top” remains relevant. Without ethical leadership to drive them politically, promises of change at the operational level will turn out to be false.

Thobile Circle 2


Thobile Madonsela is an Associate Subject Matter Expert at The Ethics Institute. She holds an Honours Degree in Public Management and Governance from the University of Johannesburg. She is currently studying towards a Master of Applied Ethics at Stellenbosch University.