Terence Corrigan: To get SA governance right, the full extent of problem needs recognition - News24

1 February 2022 - Respected Treasury veteran Ismail Momoniat ('Treasury capture: Zuma took us to levels far below 1994's economy, says Momoniat', 25 January) was commendably forthright in framing the challenges facing South Africa.

Terence Corrigan

Respected Treasury veteran Ismail Momoniat ('Treasury capture: Zuma took us to levels far below 1994's economy, says Momoniat', 25 January) was commendably forthright in framing the challenges facing South Africa. 

In an affidavit to the Zondo Commission, he said that over the past decade, the gains that the country had made during the 1990s and 2000s had largely been reversed. "The high levels of corruption after 2009 have critically damaged our economy and country, with the commensurate devastating impact on the lives of our people, not least on our school education and health systems. We now [have] a public service (in all three spheres of government) that cannot deliver even the most basic services in most parts of our country," he argued. 

One can only imagine just how devastating this must have been for him, personally and professionally.

While he is absolutely correct in linking corruption to our governance malaise – and he minces no words in his criticism – corruption, still less corruption post-2009, is not alone in having brought us to this point.

Inherited corruption 

It's entirely accurate that with the transition to democracy, the incoming government faced a debilitating set of challenges. Corruption was a well-established part of the system it inherited, and the skills available were inadequate to the scale of the tasks before it.

Yet, for political and ideological reasons, the government headed by the ANC allowed these problems to remain entrenched and even compounded them. Its conduct around the notorious arms deal was a national scandal that remains unresolved to this day: the largest part of this scandal was not the resources that were appropriated, but the damage to the institutions that should have ensured probity and accountability. 

Meanwhile, warnings about the state of administration were sounded from the mid-1990s. The Auditor-General's report for 1996/96, for example, warned that "the quality of the financial management and administration in many institutions … [has been compromised] by a shortage of staff with the necessary experience and skills."

Even the government's own white paper on transformation of the public service in 1995 noted that a shortage of skills was an existing problem, and warned about the risks of dispensing with skills that existed:

"Amongst those public servants fearful about change, there will be some who are fully committed to the need for change (though still anxious about its consequences), and who possess the marketable skills and professional ethos required by the new public service. If their fears and anxieties are not adequately addressed, there is an obvious risk of a brain drain. This would compound the severe shortage of skills already experienced by the service."
How different things might have been if this had been taken on board! But President Thabo Mbeki made it clear that he viewed criticism of race-based policy as an unconvincing veneer for racism. One of his parliamentary colleagues, Mario Rantho, put it even more starkly: "It is imperative to get rid of merit as the overriding principle in the appointment of public servants." 

As long as this attitude had any sort of purchase, the malaise to which Mr Momoniat refers was inevitable. Rantho, incidentally, went on to serve on the Public Service Commission.

Indeed, it was in the 1990s that the ANC took the fatally destructive decision consciously to politicise the civil service through its cadre deployment programme. This was illegal and counter-constitutional from its outset ('No employee of the public service may be favoured or prejudiced only because that person supports a particular political party or cause,' reads the Constitution – for whatever that mattered, which was not very much), and effectively established alternative lines of authority. 

This was corruption in its real, unadulterated sense: dishonest, fraudulent and rotten. Any doubt as to the extent of this should have been dispelled by the release of minutes of the ANC's deployment committee for the last few years. It would be intriguing to see what was discussed over the preceding two decades. 

This was the original state capture.

South Africa's administration may have been able to work through a properly thought-out process of racial transformation – indeed, to the extent that it was an expression of an expanded skills and expertise base, doing so was essential – but could never maintain its integrity where a deliberate political power-grab was at stake. In the event, it got the worst of both worlds, a debased numbers game fortified by racial nationalism, and cynical political manipulation.


And so, long before Zuma's accession, the civil service was in distress. If parts of it retained functionality, that is a tribute to rare political leadership – Trevor Manuel stood out here – and perhaps because a better calibre of cadre existed in those early years. Although it should not be forgotten that this period also gave us Jackie Selebi as police commissioner, subsequently gifted to Interpol as its president – and ultimately, convicted of corruption. (Trust me, Mbeki memorably implored the country as the scandal mounted.)

This problem was also recognised officially long before the Zuma presidency, in repeated expressions of concern about the state of municipal governance, in the funds that went unspent and in the decline of state-owned companies. Eskom's failure dates from this period. At times, official understanding of what was going on was quite incisive. 

In 2009, a report by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, The State of Local Government in South Africa, made the following remark: "Assessments revealed that party political factionalism and polarisation of interests over the last few years, and the subsequent creation of new political alliances and elites, have indeed contributed to the progressive deterioration of municipal functionality. Evidence has been collected to dramatically illustrate how the political/administrative interface has resulted in factionalism on a scale that, in some areas, it is akin to a battle over access to state resources rather than any ideological or policy differences. The lack of values, principles or ethics in these cases indicates that there are officials and public representatives for whom public service is not a concern, but accruing wealth at the expense of poor communities is their priority."

As City Press observed at the time, the 'interface' was about cadre deployment. 

But, while the problems were recognised, actually addressing them simply went beyond the repertoire of the country's political leadership, whether before or during the Zuma presidency.

The question before us is whether any lessons have actually been learned. It's easy to recognise the damage done by corruption; perhaps it's harder to understand the drivers behind it. And it is even harder to abandon ingrained beliefs. Sadly, cadre deployment is rooted in the worldview and political impulses of the ANC, and will not easily be dispensed with. No less a party figure than President Ramaphosa has defended it, however implausible his reasoning may be. Indeed, as Zuma's deputy, he chaired the deployment committee.

South Africa desperately needs to better the standards of its governance. The decay is such that 'good governance', still less a 'capable state', is well beyond our reach for now, and it will be an arduous task to move the country towards that goal. Civil servants of the stature of Mr Momoniat are key to doing so. But only if the systems around them make it possible.

And we're a long way from that…

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.