Why the South African state is incapacitated

Centralised control of public administration has delivered a civil service that can shrug off accountability and ignore the real needs of citizens, who are treated as ‘customers’.

Much is being said currently about the need to build state capacity. With multiple systemic failures, it’s understandable. The criminal justice system has an appalling record in dealing with gender-based crimes. The public education system is failing generations of school students. And the list goes on. Who or what is to blame? 

There are several common answers. There are the nine wasted years of the Zuma-Gupta presidency with its stay-out-of-jail and parasitic, industrial-scale looting projects. It involved the active dismantling of the South African Revenue Service’s effectiveness, the factional abuse of state intelligence and the repurposing of strategic state-owned enterprises. In the Free State, small farmers, the nominal beneficiaries, were swindled out of livelihoods in the infamous Estina dairy project. The state capturers themselves, however, had other mega cows to milk – the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, Eskom, Transnet, South African Airways.

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This parasitic looting of public resources has contributed significantly to a dysfunctional state. But is this a complete explanation for state incapacity? Was everything more or less okay before 2009? And, more importantly, what about the state of the state that made capture on this scale possible in the first place?

A second, often related, accusatory finger gets pointed at cadre deployment. It would be foolhardy to ignore the dismal reality of poor appointments influenced by entirely factional agendas, the inexcusable recycling of serial incompetents into senior positions, not to mention those trailing repetitive scandals behind them. True, some of the accusations against cadre deployment fit comfortably in the colonial world view of those who will tell you that they are, of course, not racists, but, well, “things are not what they used to be”. 

However, what passes for cadre deployment can certainly not be exempted from culpability. The more substantive problem with the cadre deployment argument is its overemphasis on individuals and the attendant argument, so favoured by the National Treasury and its supporting chorus in the financial media, that our policies are fine; it’s all a question of implementation.

But what if policies and their related programmes have played a central role in ruining the capacity of the state? This certainly applies to the self-imposed, swingeing austerity that has gutted our public sector, but I won’t dwell on that here.  

New public management arrives

A little-examined area, certainly in broader debates, concerns public administration reform in post-apartheid South Africa. What policy assumptions have informed attempted transformation in this area? 

Public administration has tended not to be an area of great interest for the Left in general. In the early 1990s, the broad popular movement emerging out of wave upon wave of community and sectoral struggles had developed a considerable repertoire of progressive policy perspectives on housing, health, education, energy, the labour market and social security, all with a strong emphasis on participatory democracy. Much of this found its way into the ANC’s 1993 – but soon to be sidelined – Reconstruction and Development Programme. Largely missing from the programme was any thoughtfulness about a future civil service. 

Enter right: the new public management (NPM) approach. 

In the mid-1990s, NPM (under various names) was touted in South Africa, particularly by a range of foreign consultants, as the new gold standard for public service reform. The NPM model had begun as an adjunct of the more generalised neoliberal assault on relatively developed welfare states. Originally elaborated in policy think-tanks and academic circles in the 1970s, it gained greater practical application in the 1980s in Anglophone welfare societies that had perceived public administration challenges associated with what was portrayed by an ascendant right wing as an excessively bloated welfare bureaucracy. The NPM paradigm, borrowing extensively from managerial practice in the private corporate world, portrayed its approach, by contrast, as “lean and nimble”, providing “value for money”.

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The problem – real or otherwise – for which the model was initially advanced in New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom did not remotely apply to the early-1990s South African reality. By the end of apartheid, what remained of a narrow whites-only welfare bureaucracy in an authoritarian and increasingly militarised central state had been considerably corrupted by shadowy intelligence and sanctions-busting networks. In orbit around the central state was an array of ethnic “independent states” and “self-governing territories”. Collectively, there were 151 government departments and a myriad of white and Black municipalities. The public service legacy challenges faced in our immediate post-apartheid democracy were not remotely akin to the alleged challenges in relatively mature welfare states.

To add insult to imminent injury, the civil service reform consultants who washed up on our shores in the 1990s were arriving at a time when, in their home countries, the negative impact of NPM strictures were becoming clear. It was the familiar story of toxic dumping in Africa. 

The key pillars of NPM are its managerialism: “let the managers manage”; its obsession with downsizing the civil service (“doing more with less”) in a state that “should steer, not row”; and its reduction of citizens to “clients” of state delivery.

Controlling the managers

The NPM paradigm privileges a generic financial managerial function that has tended to marginalise the diverse professional skills required in the public service. While given divisional autonomy as “accounting officers”, managers are controlled from the centre through “output deliverables” and a whole accounting thicket of acronyms – KPIs (key performance indicators), APPs (annual performance plans), and the like. Performance is incentivised financially (“pay for performance”), displacing more relevant public interest criteria like professional peer group reputation, or public respect. 

Management control exercised through divisional output targets might work in a private corporation with so many items rolled off the production line, or so many sales achieved. In the public service, departmental output targets are liable to distort the complexity of much public service, particularly when addressing key social priorities such as health, education or community safety that require interdepartmental, often all-of-government and active community engagement.

Much public-sector work also requires the exercise of professional discretion and adaptability. School teachers, healthcare workers and police officers should have the professional training and capacity to respond appropriately to the situation that presents itself to them at any one time. But under the doleful influence of NPM thinking and neoliberal cost-cutting, the value of a professional civil service was downgraded in the 1990s, exemplified by the shutting down of teacher training and nursing colleges. 

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Narrow and highly centralised attempts to manage classroom teaching by having every grade 4 class in the country, for instance, to be on the same page of a workbook on a given day undermine the necessary professional discretion a teacher needs in order to respond appropriately to specific classroom conditions and individual pupils’ needs. Likewise, attempts to evaluate police station success rates in terms of crimes reported to the station abstract from vastly different social realities. 

These inappropriate attempts at achieving accountability through centralised control have deprofessionalised major areas of public service, sowing a frequently demoralised compliance with delivery outputs determined elsewhere and irrelevant to the actual complexity of the situation at hand – “I was on the correct page of the workbook every day and yet my class failed, so whose fault is that?” 

With reporting channels running up line departments and based largely on outputs, broader social outcomes, and therefore public accountability, get lost. Officials may report, for instance, accurately on the numbers of RDP houses built or taps installed. But because performance bonuses are based on ticking off output numbers like these, public servants are loath to draw attention to actual outcomes – the poor quality of the houses, perhaps, or no water in the installed taps (“it was the responsibility of another department”). It all leads to a false sense of complacency in government and a failure in the system to learn and improve. 

The tender-focused state

All these problems have been compounded by the assumption that efficiency and effectiveness will automatically be enhanced by the public service becoming primarily a manager of contracts, a procurer of services, to be delivered by the private sector.

Leaving aside broader public interest concerns like achieving greater equality, even on the NPM’s own terms there is now considerable evidence internationally that outsourced, privatised public goods and services often do not prove to be more efficient or cost-effective, even without major corruption. Consider the case of the Gautrain, a “public-private project”, untouched by the Guptas, by the way. Its costs more than doubled in its construction phase and for a dozen years it has been draining around R1 billion annually from the Gauteng provincial budget in a “ridership guarantee” to the private sector operators.

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In a mixed economy, the state will always have to procure to some degree from the private sector. However, when this procurement is massively expanded and when public administrators are increasingly seen as generic managers of contracts at a distance, rather than public servants with professional competence in their particular fields, problems are likely to arise. The supposed steering state can easily be steered by the rowers, a case of a much more powerful and informed tail wagging the dog.

It’s a problem accentuated in South Africa, where even policy development and planning (nominally the key instruments for a steering state in the NPM model) are regularly outsourced to private consultancies, many of them associated with particular commercial technologies and services. The Zondo commission, for instance, has heard ample evidence of the role of external consultancy firms (some of them large global players) willingly – and beneficially to themselves – developing policy for public entities on behalf of state capture networks.

Long before the Zuma presidency, the combined result of inappropriate, easily gamed accountability measures and the wagged-dog effect left the state vulnerable to runaway state capture.

Citizens as clients of the state

The most damaging of all the NPM’s interrelated private sector importations into the public sector is its recasting of citizens as clients, tendentiously transforming public service to a marketplace transaction in which citizens become atomised purchasers.

In the private sector, in liberal theory at least, individual consumers supposedly have a “voice” through choices made on the market. These choices provide market signals with the purchase of a particular brand of article or service in preference to another. But most public services are not, and should not be, for-profit brands competing for market share. For a majority of South Africans, when it comes to healthcare or community safety or education, there is no “market choice”, no option of going to the private healthcare market with a medical aid, or purchasing private security, or paying for private schooling. A model of public service that seeks to emulate the “efficiencies” of the private sector, where the public interest is subordinated to prices and markets and citizens are seen as clients or consumers, will result in poor redistributive outcomes and the deepening of inequality of the kind so manifest in our South African reality.

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With NPM managers focused on the management of performance-based contracts rather than transparent engagement with society, the critical role of participatory democracy gets eroded, and the necessity of popular developmental activism is seen as an irritant at best. 

As one mayor involved in a public participatory workshop once remarked: “There’s no way I’ll expose myself to public participatory planning. The community will insist on having one ambulance in every street.”  The mayor in question clearly felt “delivering” ambulances was a personal responsibility, rather than assisting the collective identification of community priorities and the resources to be mobilised for these in a transparent and participatory manner.

Have we learnt anything from more than two decades of failed public administration reform? We might not have. The erosion of state capacity during the Zuma-Gupta years is now being actively used to argue for the intensification of corporate managerialism and its ethical world view in the public sector. In a cruel twist, an underlying cause of state incapacitation is once more promoted as a solution. 

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