Time to end cadre deployment

ANTHONY BUTLER: At best, cadre deployment was a transitional instrument whose time has passed

It might be a good idea in principle but it has been a disaster in practice

First published in BL PREMIUM

29 APRIL 2021

President Cyril Ramaphosa was unfortunately ambivalent about cadre deployment at his appearance before the Zondo commission of inquiry this week. He argued that deployment “cannot be faulted in principle”, while conceding that there are “weaknesses in its practical implementation”.

He is surely right that politicisation is unavoidable and in respects desirable. Public servants cannot help but bring values, intellectual assumptions and personal networks to their roles. In addition, a democratic system requires a public service that is responsive to the policy preferences of a properly elected government.

If cadre deployment is a good idea in principle, however, there is no escaping that it has been a disaster in practice. Drawing selectively on the findings of an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study, Ramaphosa ignored conclusive evidence from the same body that unchecked conflicts of interest, and a lack of transparency in appointments, deeply damage the operations of the state.

Public service & administration minister Senzo Mchunu this week told a conference of the government and public policy think-tank that public perceptions of incompetence, poor productivity, lethargy and unprofessional conduct are “not wrong”. More than a third of civil servants occupy positions they are demonstrably not qualified for.

Meanwhile, the boards of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and government agencies have been stuffed with an array of disreputable deployees, from Brian Molefe to Dudu Myeni and Arthur Fraser. Ramaphosa conceded to the commission of inquiry that disastrous appointments have been made, but he suggested this was not a result of the deployment process. In fact responsibility lies with Jacob Zuma, who purportedly circumvented the deployment committee of which Ramaphosa was the chair.

There is surely a deeper problem with deployment that needs to be confronted honestly. The policy was always designed to do more than help overhaul the apartheid state. Underlying it was a pseudo-Marxist assumption that a “capitalist state” is predisposed to service the interests of the owners of capital. It is therefore a hostile terrain that must be occupied, an instrument whose “levers of power” must be “seized”.

The ANC also belittled the institutions of “bourgeois democracy” — parliament, the media, civil society organisations and mechanisms of intrastate accountability — that are in fact essential if corruption is to be contained. The ANC’s ambivalence about stable protections for public service impartiality created space for cycles to build up between deployment, access to state resources and donations to the party or its factions.

Meanwhile, a party fundraiser, Valli Moosa, was deployed in the mid-2000s to chair Eskom, at exactly the moment an ANC-aligned investment vehicle, Chancellor House, secured enormous remunerative contracts from the parastatal. This helped make legitimate what soon became a systematic looting of SOEs.

Money flows and deployments have become systemically linked, and donations have become de facto kickbacks. This system has matured, and its reach has extended beyond tender and audit committees to embrace external auditors and intrastate accountability mechanisms.

Surely it is time for deployment to be retired as a philosophy and as a practice. At best, it was a transitional instrument whose rationale and time have passed. Ramaphosa’s position, however, is to hedge. He has promised to establish an “SOE council”, which will supposedly improve governance and oversee appointment processes.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) will be empowered to play a new role in the appointment of senior national and provincial officials. There is also talk of a new head of the public service to oversee bureaucrats’ career progression in a “professionalised” state.

This raises one obvious question: how can we be sure the new parastatal council, the enhanced PSC, and the fresh civil service head, will perform their roles in a principled way? Don’t worry, is Ramaphosa’s answer. The deployment committee will see to it that in all three cases the best people for the job will be appointed.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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