On the 25 June 2020, the National School of Government hosted a webinar with Professor Stan Sangweni, the former Chairperson of the Public Service Commission.  The theme of the discussion between several hundred members of the public service, sector consultants and those pursuing further studies in politics and public administration was ‘Pandemics and their impact on public service performance: How to build the envisioned capable state? 

For those who know our Apartheid history and legacy of the African Nation Congress (ANC), Prof Sangweni started on a key point within the Freedom Charter, adopted in 1955 by what is now the first democratic governing party, the ANC, for the past twenty-six years – ‘We the people shall govern’. In other words, all matters of governance in South Africa needs to emanate from this basic, inalienable right. Sadly, individuals and communities have ceded their power to politicians and in doing so have weakened the chain of accountability and transparency. The people have abdicated this right and the government have normalized it. 

Twenty-six years into democracy and on the back of institutionalized colonial and Apartheid systems that have been challenging to dismantle; South Africa is rated as the most inequitable country in the world. An assessment of the state of the nation cannot exclude the state of the public sector who is empowered by the constitution to be the service delivery hand of government. According to a 2019 Stats SA  report, the South African population is 58,78 million. The public sector, specifically employed to create a developmental state that builds enabling conditions for all of those residing in South Africa, consists of 2,108,125 public servants across the three tiers (local, provincial and national), costing the country the largest portion of its budget – 34%. Effectively a third of what South Africa spends on is not actual services, infrastructure, capital investment into rural and secondary industry, let alone education – just on employees, not resources. 

1994 delivered political freedom to the majority of South Africans, who lived under minority-rule Apartheid which, created spatial planning whose impacts are still felt harshly today in transport, housing, probability of class mobility, access to quality education and base physiological needs. The political freedom has not been sufficiently accompanied by economic emancipation. Socioeconomic conditions in South Africa from substance abuse to gender based violence to continued homelessness and food insecurity remain a pandemic in themselves – a pandemic of poverty, inequality and unemployment. 

The COVID_19 pandemic has forced us from the comfort and loyalties, making many South Africans question the calibre of politicians across political parties, our system of governance, the role and reform of the public sector. Politically significant is that the pandemic has added vocal voices to “we cannot defend the indefensible”, especially after the harrowing years of blatant state capture. Citizens simply have no stomach or tolerance for the public servant vultures who now openly eat from the coronavirus carcasses.

The almost daily revelations of corruption, which at its core means people are not accessing proper food, shelter, healthcare or education in a country with the 5th highest number of cases, resulted in the President stating in his national address on 23 June 2020 that ‘More so than at any other time, corruption puts our lives at risk’. These are apt words, but the populace want action – criminal justice. 

There is a point whether by the hands of the constitutional judgement on electoral reform or the structural adjustment changes that will accompany the soon to be inevitable International Monetary Fund and World Bank bailout loans beyond COVID_19 relief, as well as conditions from other bilateral arrangements, if not by sheer force of population anger, that public sector reform will come. It’s the only path to spend more of our GDP on service and developmental tools instead of employees. We no longer have the luxury of spending R34 of every GDP R100 on a public sector wage bill. 

Reform is not a simple 123. It is going to take time, which is something citizens tired of talk don’t want to hear. We are not simply building a public service that is fit for purpose; we are changing the hearts and minds of South Africans, through civic education, of what our constitution determines and demands our public sector should be. There is good and bad news. 

The bad news is that a professional and exceptional public service will not become a reality without immediate and decisive political will. The Executive response to the revelations of corruption in the awarding of critical, life-saving Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) tenders will be telling in whether a momentum of this political will can be sufficiently built. I argue here, without the delving into detail, that the starting point is a Cabinet reshuffle that supports President Ramaphosa in the accountability, transparency and professionalism he seeks. Added, the criminal justice system must reorganized to prioritize these cases, to regain public with more harsh sentencing serving as a deterrent for further state resource exploitation. 

The good news is that the answers don’t need more commission or consultants. The Freedom Charter, on which our constitution is based makes it clear that the people should govern through an appointed Executive, based on free and fair elections, accompanied by a professional and apolitical public service. Specifically Chapter 10 spells out the purpose of government reiterating in Section 18 that the public service is a career of choice. The Bill of Rights, notably Section 27 sets out the basic needs that must be met. When coupled with the National Development Plan, notably Chapter 13 on the public sector, there is a step by step guide for public servants to deliver what is legally required and beyond. 

Our constitution is a blueprint for elected servant leaders, professional public servants – a map to Eldorado, not fabled city, but how to realistically overcome inequality, poverty and unemployment. For me, the biggest stumbling block is not the ruling party or the government, but the absence of an active citizenry that holds elected office bearers and appointed public servants accountable and insists on horizontal governance that partners citizens with government, thereby creating a transparency that the founders of the constitution missed in their oversight of instilling mechanisms for dealing with state corruption or extended capture. The pandemic offers South Africans an opportunity to hold those who “eat” state resources to account in order to reform our public sector to “feed” our country based on our constitution and NDP. We the people, can and must govern. 

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