The real problem with government workers in South Africa: Ramaphosa

A streamlined, efficient and well-integrated civil service is the hallmark of a capable state, but South Africa has fallen in a number of areas, says President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Writing in his weekly open letter to the public, Ramaphosa said that the government’s key priority is to build a ‘capable state’.

“If we are to build a more capable state we have to seriously and urgently address the shortcomings in the organisation and the capacity of the public service,” he said.

Ramaphosa said that the view that the public service is bloated is misplaced. “Public servants include officials and administrators, but they also include doctors, nurses, policemen and women and teachers who play an invaluable role in keeping the wheels of our country turning.

“The real issue is whether – given its size, cost and needs of our country – the public service is performing as it should. The experience of our people is that in several areas, the state is falling short of expectations,” he said

The president said that there are some fundamental problems in the public service that the government is now working to fix. These include:

  • The ‘political-administrative’ interface, where lines of accountability at the most senior levels of the state have become blurred. Political office bearers such as Ministers, MECs and Mayors often veer towards getting involved in administrative matters that should be the responsibility of professional public servants.
  • Public service managers must be given the space, the means and the resources to manage.
  • Senior appointments are sometimes made on political considerations rather than expertise. This severely limits the capacity and effective functioning of the state.
  • As much as the ranks of our civil service comprise individuals committed to driving government’s programme of action, it has also over the years been associated with patronage. This is manifested through the appointment of people into senior positions based on considerations other than their capability to execute the tasks of the office they are appointed to.

Increased training

Ramaphosa said that the building of ‘a capable, ethical and developmental state’ is now among government’s foremost priorities.

“We want the public service to be oriented towards efficiency, performance and developmental outcomes.” The president said that the civil service should also attract high-calibre and qualified candidates.

“As one of the ways of achieving this, the National Development Plan (NDP) proposes a formal graduate recruitment scheme for the public service. Our people want the best and the brightest in society to serve them.

“The civil service must be seen as a career destination of choice by those who want to make a difference in the life of their country, and not merely as a comfortable 9-to-5 desk job or a place to earn a salary with minimal effort.

“Should some still harbour this view they should take advantage of opportunities to exit the public service to make way for those who are up to the task.”

Wage dispute

Ramaphosa’s comments come as government and public sectors workers gear up for a legal battle around an ongoing wage dispute.

The case focuses on whether the government has to pay almost R4o billion in salary increases to public sector workers. Business Day reports that the government wants the court to declare that doing so will be unlawful.

The increases the state agreed to pay as part of a multi-term wage agreement signed in 2018 were supposed to take effect on 1 April, but the government said it does not have the money to pay.

The issues are expected to come to a head in the coming weeks as workers gear up for the start of strike season in South Africa.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) says it will begin mobilising for major strike action in the first week of October. The trade federation plans to go on a general strike on 7 October, with the protest focusing on corruption and perceived inaction by the government.

Public wages are set through bargaining with unions and agreements stay in force for three years. The current agreement is in place until March 2021.

However, in February the government asked to review the last leg of a three-year pay agreement because it said it couldn’t afford it.

The coronavirus pandemic has further exacerbated the country’s financial problems with unions and government now set for a showdown.

National Treasury plans on cutting R160 billion from the public sector wage bill over the next three years – a position that has been met with opposition from public sector trade unions.

Read: Ramaphosa considers cabinet reshuffle – report

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The real problem with government workers in South Africa: Ramaphosa