Drop the cadre

Lyndall Shope-Mafole's surprise move spurs debate on the blurry line between politicians and civil servants.

Read time 4min 30sec

Lyndall Shope-Mafole's resignation from the National Executive of the ANC set tongues wagging over the weekend. Her near-immediate alignment with the new South African Democratic Congress (SADC) party brought to mind again the concerns I have about senior civil servants also being senior members of political parties.

If the SADC is to stand as a party genuinely and fully committed to democracy and the elimination of the culture of corruption and clientelism that threatens it, it should insist that Shope-Mafole and others like her are at best simply foot soldiers for the new movement. Or at least put in place firm controls to ensure that while these positions should dovetail, neither gets in the way of the public interest. Anything less would be mere continuation of the can of worms the ANC-proper has worked itself into over recent years.

The debate over whether civil servants should be political in carrying out the requirements of their job is almost as old as democracy itself. To be fair, our Constitution allows for this, but it could be argued that there's a significant gap between the spirit and intention of such legislation and the tendency for politicians the world over to use any rung (or human back) possible to claw their way up the political ladder. As usual, there's a middle ground to be found somewhere. Too bad the politicians' tunnel vision often means they're incapable of seeing it.

It's fair enough to expect that administrators carry out their functions according to public policy that is formulated largely by elected representatives. Where these same administrators are plucked from the ranks of the party-faithful, however, the kind of conflict of interest that is usually eschewed in other walks of life threatens to upset the system. As one would expect of political appointments, only those who completely hold the party line on any issue will advance through the ranks. When the ANC was elected in 1994, it could reasonably be argued that the fact that they were inheriting a highly politicised apartheid civil service meant it was necessary to the advancement of public service delivery that the new government make political appointments. But fast-forward to 2008 and you're left wondering.

Party or country?

The debate over whether civil servants should be political in carrying out the requirements of their job is almost as old as democracy itself.

Pamela Weaver, contributor, ITWeb

The way we've developed as a country, it's almost impossible to envisage us following the likes of Britain into a damn-as-near-as-possible neutral civil service. And it's only right to acknowledge that public servants have a duty to accept their role lower down the food chain than those who have actually been elected by the citizens of any country (although our current party list system rains on this parade somewhat). But what happens when some policy is just plain la-la? What happens when civil servants spot some dodgy behaviour or bad ideas they know to be contrary to the public interest but don't want to damage the party to which they owe allegiance?

Which comes first, party or country? And should we really allow political parties to conflate the national interest with its particular goals and frameworks? Former Irish prime minister Eamon de Valera once said he only had to look into his heart to know what the Irish people wanted. Interestingly enough, he too had been a leading member of Ireland's liberation movement. Interestingly enough, he attempted to change the country's Constitution to introduce a system of proportional representation similar to the current party list system in South Africa - a system that would have made it extraordinarily difficult for his party, Fianna Fail, to ever be voted out of power.

The reason that many senior civil servants around the world are extremely well paid is that they're supposed to be in a position to complement and advise their elected counterparts - the concept of speaking truth to power. Bad policy is often the joint effort of both the elected and unelected public servant, but it can also occur because people who should (and often do) know better won't speak up because their party wouldn't take kindly to such dissent. Similarly, it should be noted that politically driven appointments confer power without the responsibility most elected officials face. If our civil servants cannot be shielded from the slings and arrows of the political process, we stand little chance of holding firm on the checks and balances so vital to any democracy. There has to be more to the civil service than mere rubber-stamping and party loyalty - there is work to be done, and appointments based on merit are more likely to see to it that we crack on with things.

The real litmus test of where we're off to will be whether Shope-Mafole is able to hold on to her job. Love her or loathe her, it would be extremely difficult for the party that appointed her to convincingly suggest she's no longer any use. I wonder what odds the bookies would give on that.

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