It is not enough to condemn culprits when babies die - Business Day, 30 June 2014

"Condemn us when children die of contaminated water." That, according to Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president of the African National Congress (ANC) and the country, is one of the media's jobs. He was speaking on 20 June at the annual Nat Nakasa award for courageous journalism hosted by the South African National Editors' Forum.

Perhaps it was coincidence, but 10 days before Ramaphosa's speech the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) had put out a press release headlined "affirmative action kills babies and must be scrapped". We were referring to the deaths of three infants in Bloemhof in the North West province after they had drunk contaminated water. The municipality had reportedly "lost its capacity" to look after its sewerage plant, causing leakage into the water supply. Hundreds of cases of diarrhoea were reported.

Our statement linking the deaths to the use of affirmative action in local government elicited both praise and outrage.

A paper issued by Parliament's research unit earlier this year said diarrhoea was one of the major causes of high mortality among infants.

An audit by the South African Institution of Civil Engineering in 2011 gave sanitation in major urban areas a C minus rating. It commented that "waste water leakage and spillage, especially into major rivers are still too high". Sanitation infrastructure in all other areas was rated E minus - meaning "unfit for purpose" because infrastructure "has failed or is on the verge of failure, exposing the public to health and safety hazards."

Not long after that the National Development Plan (NDP) spoke of a "crumbling health system and a rising disease burden." An audit of national health facilities commissioned by the Department of Health and published in 2012 gave them a score of 50% on infection prevention and control, and 50% on cleanliness.

A "deficit in skills and professionalism" affected all elements of the public service, said the NDP, the shortage being particularly acute at municipal level.

The question is why. Public health facilities, like local government, do not run themselves. They are run by people. So the question is how those people are appointed.

Official national policy is that they are appointed according to employment equity requirements. ANC practice is that they are appointed to promote cadre  deployment. This does not mean everyone is appointed on grounds of race or political allegiance, but a great many are.

The need to fill racial quotas has also led to the displacement of white professionals, especially engineers, throughout local government. Nor is the education system producing sufficient numbers of qualified black engineers to replace them. The institutional memory that went out with them cannot be replaced. One consequence is that new infrastructure has been built while old infrastructure has decayed because it has been neglected.

The conventional view of the problem in local government is "lack of capacity". This euphemism fails to uncover the reasons for this lack. One of them is that many of the appointments, like much of the infrastructure, are "unfit for purpose".

But there is a third component of personnel policy: lack of accountability. This is a problem in South Africa from the top down. Ministers and bureaucrats who foul up can often do so with impunity. Their fate is not dismissal, but "redeployment".

This toxic trio - affirmative action, cadre deployment, and impunity - explains many of the problems plaguing government at all levels. More people are waking up to the risks arising from widespread impunity. A few are recognising the damage done by appointments on grounds of political loyalty. But they need to pluck their heads from the sand on affirmative action.

Ramaphosa himself needs to do this. Not long before the election he said that "race will remain an issue until all echelons of our society are demographically representative". It is no good simply condemning culprits when babies die, as he suggests. The reasons must also be exposed and corrected.

By John Kane-Berman
* Kane-Berman is a consultant at the South African Institute of Race Relations