Terence Corrigan: Could I have been wrong on ANC's commitment to end cadre deployment? - News24

5 November 2022 - The early part of last week was dominated by discussions on government’s response to the recommendations of the Zondo Commission. President Cyril Ramaphosa's message was that this demonstrated just how seriously the government took the matter, and was determined that this should not recur.

The early part of last week was dominated by discussions on government’s response to the recommendations of the Zondo Commission. President Cyril Ramaphosa's message was that this demonstrated just how seriously the government took the matter, and was determined that this should not recur.

I was not alone in noting the most significant omission from the response in that there was no mention of the ruling ANC's policy of cadre deployment. 

I've argued on many occasions that it is on this issue that the governance future of the country turns. This was the original state capture. A brazen, openly expressed plan to ensure party control over the state (and everything else in society), instituted through party structures that had no earthly right to do so, the Zondo Report aptly called it illegal and unconstitutional. This ensured corruption and incompetence in governance and undermined the institutions on which constitutional governance depended.

DA court challenge

Indeed, not only has the ANC as a party gone to court to defend cadre deployment against a challenge from the DA. The Presidency has joined this, declaring the Commission's recommendations non-binding. President Ramaphosa has joined a number of his colleagues in defending the practice as uncontroversial and completely acceptable in a constitutional democracy – even as a positive good for accountability. 

I have also argued that what was at stake in defending cadre deployment was not just power or the opportunities for patronage but a very real investment in the ANC's self-image. As South Africa’s liberation movement, it has seen itself as uniquely entitled – indeed, mandated – to rule. Control over all 'levers of power' in South Africa by the ANC was in its mind, a veritable responsibility to history.

So, it was with some surprise that I read the cabinet-approved document entitled A National Framework Towards the Professionalisation of the Public Sector. I had read an antecedent draft of this document, and while it made some very worthwhile observations, cadre deployment didn't feature at all. The recently released document not only does so, but – within the limits of bureaucrospeak – does so quite critically and forthrightly.

Thus we read: 

"Recruitment and selection practices based on deployment have gained notoriety which has spawned cynicism. Some even questioned their constitutionality related to the principle of equality, and they may have a point if deployment practices are to be looked at from the perspective of Section 197 (3) of the Constitution, which states that 'no employee of the Public Service may be favoured or prejudiced only because that person supports a particular political party or cause'. The recommendation that the panel is making is that deployment practices ought to be ditched in favour of a merit-based recruitment and selection system, which it regards as key to building a capable, ethical and developmental state."

That is impressive. Not only does it nod approvingly to the rather damning argument against the constitutionality of this practice, but it draws a clear contradistinction between "deployment" and "merit", with the latter as the “key to building a capable, ethical and developmental state". It doesn't skirt this by making an unconvincing demand for better cadre deployment.

Been here before 

Leon Schreiber, the DA MP who has been waging a dogged campaign in Parliament against this practice, hailed cabinet approval of the document as a game-changing victory for his party. 

In doing so, the government had adopted DA policy (well, he would say that, wouldn't he – but there’s an element of truth to it) and had placed cadre deployment beyond the pale. To continue doing so would be for the state to act contrary to its own policies. It would provide those not in government – such as the DA – with a formidable weapon to use in holding the government to account and enforcing merit-based selection. All South Africans should wish him well in this endeavour.

We shall see. 

My own concern is that we've been here before. Supposedly game-changing ideas and weighty policy proposals can slip quietly off the agenda between their presentation to the public and the interminable process of consultation and bargaining that is meant to gear them for implementation. Think about labour policy, for example.

There is nothing to suggest that this Framework represents a normative change of heart among the ANC's leadership. The document bears the hallmark of professional and academic input, examining things with an eye on evidence-based solutions. How this will play out in the corridors of Luthuli House remains to be seen.

The late Patrick Chabal, a well-respected scholar of African politics, once wrote of the continent's governance: "Despite the formal political structures in place, power transits essentially through the informal sector." 

A tipping point? 

This could well describe cadre deployment, where the legitimate, formal structures and processes of the state were suborned by the illegal, informal ones (informal, at least in terms of state-recognised institutions) created by the party. There is every danger that this could continue apace – decided less by scheduled and minuted meetings than by after-hours get-togethers among power brokers in someone's lounge. Unmentioned, unacknowledged, but always perceptible.

Note, too that if the ANC should succeed in defeating the court challenge to this practice – though I think this unlikely – it will gift cadre deployment with a patina of latitude and respectability that will almost certainly see it continue in some form.

But then again, perhaps this is a tipping point. Perhaps the scale of crisis is such that pragmatism prompts pragmatism as a desperate response. This would not be unprecedented either in South Africa or globally. And while this may be reform under duress, I'm happy to take reform whence it comes.

Was I wrong about the ANC and its commitment to cadre deployment? I don't know, and I doubt it. I remain sceptical of the prospects for implementation – but I would be very pleased to have been wrong.

Terence Corrigan is project manager at the Institute of Race Relations