Cadre deployment: Not a bad name, a bad idea - Politicsweb

The recent ruling by the Gauteng High Court against the Democratic Alliance’s bid to have cadre deployment declared unconstitutional challenges us – including myself – to think about our assumptions around this programme.

Terence Corrigan

The recent ruling by the Gauteng High Court against the Democratic Alliance’s bid to have cadre deployment declared unconstitutional challenges us – including myself – to think about our assumptions around this programme.

To begin with, a legal judgment is not necessarily an endorsement of anyone’s position. Rather, it is an interpretation of the law and arguments presented. A significant element of the judgment was that the DA had failed to demonstrate its concerns in more than conjectural terms.

There is merit to this. Since the cadre deployment committee was established in the late 1990s, its existence has been acknowledged, though its activities have remained opaque. Without details of the committee’s workings, it was always difficult to pinpoint the influence of the deployment programme, and to assign specific responsibility for its execution. This is why the DA’s case to secure the committee’s records going back to 2012 is of great importance, and why the ANC’s contention that they were lost seems so very convenient.

In a recent piece, (‘Darlin', you gave cadre deployment a bad name’, 27 February), News24 Editor-in-Chief Adriaan Basson grapples with the implications of cadre deployment, in particular the varying quality of deployees.

Basson presents Bulelani Ngcuka and Menzi Simelane as opposing faces of cadre deployment; Ngcuka, of integrity and public-mindedness, Simelane, of dishonesty and party-hackery. From this, he argues that the problem is less with the principle of cadre deployment, that with its abuse and the ‘almost militant and wholescale way the party became the final arbiter on all and any appointments in the state.’

In other words, if the deployment process had been a little more restrained and could furnish more Ngcukas and fewer Simelanes, it wouldn’t be much of the problem.

I’m not so sure. We often reduce governance pathologies to their visible outcomes; corruption is measured in money stolen and opportunities foregone. The reality is that these are often the proverbial tip of the iceberg, with large consequences lurking unseen.

Cadre deployment was conceived as part of the ANC’s plan for ‘hegemony’. By the late 1990s, it had made clear that it envisaged taking control of the state and society at large. In 1998, it defined ‘transformation of the state’ as ‘first and foremost, extending the power of the NLM [National Liberation Movement] over all levers of power’.

This was indeed ‘militant and wholescale’, but expressed a deeply held, messianic view within the ANC about its place in history. Cadre deployment was not intended to be anything less.

Establishing a party committee to leverage the ANC’s hold on state power to ensure the placement of its ‘cadres’ was always a fraught idea. South Africa’s Constitution was written to insulate the state administration against party political interference: ‘No employee of the public service may be favoured or prejudiced only because that person supports a particular political party or cause.’ It was implausible that a party committee mediating appointments – outside public scrutiny to boot – could be compatible with that stricture.

It's doubtful that the ANC ever really took regard of what the High Court judgment called the ‘bright line between state and party’. In its 1997 January 8th Statement, then President Nelson Mandela demanded of those in positions of authority: ‘You are not ANC cadres only “after hours”.’ A decade later, Carl Niehaus, who at that time was an ANC member in good standing, told an interviewer that there was ‘an expectation that the party line and leadership should be followed blindly, and that the judicial and democratic institutions of the state should merely be instruments to carry out ANC policy.’ Effectively this is what it did – and what it intended – creating parallel lines of authority and diminishing the standing of the formal systems.

The governance consequences have been profound. As the National Planning Commission put it: ‘A significant challenge and contradiction that goes against the developmental state aspiration of South Africa identified is the rejection of meritocracy in the country’s public service. Persons are appointed to jobs in State-Owned Entities and the public service without the requisite experience, skills or gravitas as a result of inappropriate political involvement in selection and performance management.’

In this way, cadre deployment corrupted the functioning of the state. Cadre deployment has eroded the integrity of systems and institutions, quite apart from the potential (and as Basson rightly notes, the actual) failings of individual ‘deployees’.

Politicisation of the state also did a disservice to South Africa’s entire democratic edifice, by claiming for one sectarian organisation what should have been the common property of all. It also deprived South Africa of skilled and committed people who might have been regarded as politically unreliable, or who would decline to work in an environment where their careers depended on political favouritism.

Basson is correct that it is impossible to remove all political influence in the civil service. But I’d suggest that this truism misunderstands the scope of what is happening (certainly on the evidence of those documents so far released) and of what would be necessary to remedy it.

Cadre deployment must be done away with, completely. Where political influence on appointments may be acceptable – say, for policy advisors or spokespeople, or at director-general level – these need to be properly defined, and strictly limited to the term of the relevant political incumbent.

For the civil service as a whole, a commitment to the meritocracy that has long been abandoned has to be reintroduced. The obvious starting point is to reestablish the Public Service Commission as the custodian of a professional, career-oriented civil service. Clear lines of authority within such a reformed service would create an indispensable framework for building a culture in which loyalty to the ethos of the institution is adhered to, irrespective of the political persuasions of those who work within in. Civil servants may be cadres only after hours.

But this will of course not be possible if a political party seeks to extend its influence into what has to be a separate, non-partisan domain. It is not that cadre deployment has been given a bad name, it’s that it is a bad idea.

Terence Corrigan is publications and project manager at the Institute of Race Relations