The recent actions of the South African treasury and central government in placing several state departments in various provinces – notably Limpopo and Eastern Cape, under administration were a surprise to many. But given widespread financial chaos and technical bankruptcy in Limpopo – the home of comrade revolutionaries Cassel Mathale and Juju, the treasury acted to ensure that civil servants and other creditors were paid to prevent anarchy and forestall an even greater sense that the ANC cannot rule effectively. In the Eastern Cape the wheels had long fallen off education and there too a central-led state team was dispatched to save the situation. However, these actions have not gone smoothly. The Limpopo team had to be escorted to work by armed security and in the Eastern Cape there is currently a stand off between SADTU and the new education administrators leaving many schools paralyzed by striking teachers.
How did the situation deteriorate to such an extent and why is central government finally taking a stand?
The inability to properly manage public finances and deliver tangibles, in particular for the working class, has been a feature of the New South Africa. A number of factors have contributed to this mess. Whilst recognizing that it was never going to be easy to take over the reins from a largely White, Afrikaner, racist bureaucracy and that it would be necessary in the short term to appoint cadres who were above all politically loyal to the objectives of the new government, the way the Mandela/ Mbeki presidencies dealt with this key challenge was woefully inadequate.
Three vital areas were mishandled. The first was the failure to pair political appointees (‘commissars’) with experienced administrators so that the knowledge/management skill deficit of the politicos did not become fatal to delivery.
Secondly, the failure to implement a code of conduct that barred civil servants from simultaneously becoming directors of and/ or running private businesses, has meant that many civil servants are more involved in their private affairs than in running government. Finally, the way in which state tenders have been manipulated has also contributed to the rot. A new class of tenderpreneurs has come to blight public life and erode trust in the ruling party. As a result local government which should be at the forefront of delivering the better life for all has become bogged down in power mongering and factionalism as the principles of ‘clean and efficient’ public service degenerate into a plundering of the state fiscus. This is why over the past financial year so much money (some R27 billion nationally) is either unaccounted for or was frivolously spent.
Why then has the Zuma regime cracked the whip? Was it simply to embarrass certain political opponents or is there a deeper current of real accountability taking place?
Internally within the ANC and the state apparatus, the setting up a National Planning Commission has put the spotlight on the state’s lack of performance. That Ramaphosa and Manuel are key members and that Ramaphosa, in particular, has political ambitions has meant that Zuma must watch his back. In addition, Pravin Gordhan, who turned SARS into a formidable instrument for tax collection, has made a difference. Treasury has become far more proactive and resistant to excess and waste at all levels. This is not to say that all loopholes have been closed but far greater oversight of provincial and central state expenditure is slowly being achieved. In addition, Cosatu has become more and more outspoken with regard to state negligence as its members bear the brunt of service failure. Indeed, this week the national leadership took the unprecedented step of challenging one of its own senior affiliates (SADTU) with regard to the education debacle in the Eastern Cape.
All this bodes well and one can only hope that this fresh wind continues to blow through government and further empowers those who take their responsibilities seriously. It is supremely ironic that this is happening under Zuma’s watch, but then irony is the stuff of history.