Lead article – Kris Dobie

When you have a problem, the logical thing to do is to try to fix it. 

As Gwede Mantashe points out: in 1994, when the ANC came to power there was a definite problem in that most (if not all) senior managers in public sector departments were white, and many were antagonistic to the new regime. It would be impossible to build a democratic state if those leaders remained in place. To fix this, the ANC took the approach of cadre deployment which had been remarkably effective in installing public service managers that were more sympathetic to the ideals of the government of the day, and more representative of South Africa’s population. 

Today, however, the problem of the day is corruption. If we do not solve corruption, we will not attain our democratic ideals. While cadre deployment was effective at solving the problem of its day, it is not the correct tool with which to address the challenges of today. 

The Ethics Institute has been doing research into public sector ethics in numerous studies since 2015. One problem that we have been trying to come to grips with is how to address ethical leadership challenges in local government. We are working on the assumption that most people who work in local government are ethical individuals, but that there may be systemic features of local government that make it difficult for them to actively live out their values. As part of the Local Government Ethical Leadership Initiative, we have therefore been asking the question: What makes ethical leadership difficult in local government?

The one theme that repeatedly comes up is that the politicisation of local government makes it difficult for people to live their values. And the one thing that causes the politicisation of local government is cadre deployment. 

Focus groups and interviews with hundreds of public servants paints a very bleak picture of a highly unprofessional environment in which politics trumps performance. The impact is not only on society at large, but also on an increasingly demotivated host of public servants who want to contribute and want to work in professional organisations. 

There are those who say that it is not the policy of cadre deployment that is to blame, but the abuse of this policy for factional and personal agendas. True cadre deployment, they assert, will always seek the best person for the job; someone who has the most competence, but with the understanding that they can work with the policies of the government of the day. 

The truth is that cadre deployment will never be implemented purely in its true ideological guise. In reality, the line between cadre deployment and patronage politics disappears very quickly, and people stop being deployed to address racial and ideological divides, and start being deployed to promote personal and factional agendas. Personal and factional agendas, by extension, are – based on existing research – very strongly associated with corruption. 

The narrative goes something like this: A certain faction will get voted in, and they will appoint people to positions of influence so that they can award tenders and jobs in line with factional demands. If they do not, the politicians can easily get rid of them. If they transgress in other ways, they are untouchable because they serve a particular purpose. Those who want to do the right thing cannot because their livelihoods (and increasingly their lives) depend on their silence. Then the next faction is elected, and the story repeats. In the process, the governance of the municipality is destabilised and eroded to the point of dysfunction. 

The research is noticeably clear on the fact that, far from solving anything, cadre deployment is a very real cause of corruption and plays a significant part in capture at the local, provincial, and national levels. 

So how, then, do we fix this problem?

The one challenge that we have is that politicians are responsible for appointing heads of department in the public service, as well as all senior managers in local government. This was a useful tool for redressing past imbalances after 1994 but is now also proving a useful tool for destructive deployment practices and the associated corruption. 

The first port of call is, therefore, to change the appointment processes for heads of department and other senior managers to ensure a greater focus on professional rather than political considerations (an EFF councillor once told me that he finds the deployment policy very strange, because there is no such thing as an ANC road, or a DA road, or an EFF road. There are just roads, and these need to be built by professional people). It is not so much a problem that politicians are unable to appoint professional people as it is a case of politics being unstable by its very nature. If each politician brings in his/her people, the organisations will struggle to achieve the levels of stability required for good governance and will find itself incapable of attracting the calibre of leaders required. We need to create greater distance between politicians and the appointment of administrative leaders, and we need to ensure greater stability of tenure for those senior administrative leaders who currently face the instability of five-year contracts that are seldom served to completion. 

The National Development Plan has already made some exceptionally good recommendations in this regard, as has the Professionalisation Framework for the Public Service. These are not recent problems, and the solutions are already entrenched in government frameworks. The only thing that is still required is implementation. 

If we want to fix the problem, the data is very clear about the fact that we should stop deployment practices and move towards a professional public service. If politicians are committed to solving the problem, they will implement the solution. That is, of course, if we assume that the problems that politicians want to solve are South African problems and not party-political problems.


Kris Circle

Kris Dobie is a Senior Manager: Organisational Ethics at The Ethics Institute