Why it’s so difficult for government to turn things around in South Africa

South Africa’s government consists of over two million employees and has a budget of R1.8 trillion. That makes for a vastly complicated institution that is going to present all kinds of management problems, says Busi Mavuso, chief executive of Business Leadership South Africa.

Writing in her weekly open letter, Mavuso said that while the business sector is far larger in terms of people and money, it is divided into companies that are individually smaller and more manageable.

While it is easy for business leaders to criticise, the human resources and financial management challenges of government are going to be massive, she said.

“While being CEO is no walk in the park, especially when you must compete in a dynamic market unlike the civil service, at least you can maintain a tight focus and act decisively when needed.”

By comparison, Mavuso said that president Cyril Ramaphosa must manage multiple complex stakeholders and a vast organisation.

It is like turning an oil tanker while you have fires on board, and you only have your job for five years before political forces can turn against you.”

Despite this difficult job, Mavuso said that progress is being made by Ramaphosa as evidenced in the auditor-general’s report published last week.

Auditor-General Tsakani Maluleke said that irregular expenditure among national and provincial government departments decreased to R54 billion from R66 billion in the previous year.

Some provinces like Limpopo showed a marked improvement, while others like the Free State deteriorated. Overall, though, the trend is in the right direction, said Mavuso.

“I see in this a return of accountability, to some degree, across the public sector. It reflects the impact of the president’s efforts to shift compliance levels across the country.”


Mavuso said that the president is also making progress in another major area of deterioration under former president Jacob Zuma – the capacity and skill levels in the public sector.

“The exodus of skilled people from the public sector has been devastating, leaving institutions from municipalities to national government departments without the skills or competence to implement projects or provide services.

“Poor audit outcomes are one consequence; another is the collapse in infrastructure investment in the public sector as the engineers and project management skills just aren’t there. Citizens feel it in the weak public services provided.”

Mavuso said that the cabinet has also approved the National Implementation Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Service and the draft framework is now open for public consultation.

The framework details how civil servants are recruited to their development and retention.  The objective is to depoliticise the civil service and insulate it from party politics while driving accountability and competence, said Mavuso.

“These HR and financial management improvements should be applauded. But in the meantime, the serious capacity constraints in government have to be managed.

“One mechanism that we have consistently pointed to as BLSA is to make better use of the private sector.

“When it comes to infrastructure investment, for example, we have set out in detail how capacity problems in the public sector, both skills and capital, can be alleviated in partnership with the private sector.”

Read: The top-ranked business sector that’s going to help rebuild the economy: Ramaphosa

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Why it’s so difficult for government to turn things around in South Africa