South Africa is a bureaucracy that serves officials

22 May 2016 - 02:00 By Jabulani Sikhakhane

The South African state has no chance in hell of improving the delivery of quality public services unless the country's political leadership resolves the contradictory rationales that shape the workings of the state bureaucracy. These include the need to create a modern and effective bureaucracy and the imperative to change the racial composition of the civil service and bring about the formation of the new black elite.Other factors that frustrate the creation of a developmental state include ambivalence towards skill as well as authority, and the subversion of hierarchy. Tensions between these different rationales, according to a study by Karl von Holdt published in the South African Review of Sociology in 2010, explain much of the dysfunctionality of state institutions.Von Holdt is the director of the Society Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand. His study, "Nationalism, Bureaucracy and the Developmental State: The South African Case", analyses the workings of the post-apartheid South African bureaucracy through the prism of state hospitals and provincial health departments.story_article_left1Von Holdt notes that in public health the delivery of services to patients requires a high level of skill - but also a need for established protocols that are critical for effective medical intervention.These routines must provide both the information base and space for discretion and judgment based on the skill and experience of health professionals. This is because human ill health is an extremely complex phenomenon."If a high level of state capability is a defining feature of a developmental state, and the kind of capability required is one that is able to take initiatives, to innovate or facilitate innovation, and to effectively implement its policies, then the bureaucracy of state institutions has to feature both well-organised and effective routines, as well as analytical, discretionary and innovative capacity, and integrate these in appropriate ways. Neither of these are obtained in the South African case," says Von Holdt.He finds that the dysfunctionality and management failures in public hospitals can be explained by the post-1994 orientation of public sector bureaucrats towards their own upward career mobility.This has become the core rationale of the functioning of the bureaucracy, which undermines work performance and the creation of a stable, functioning bureaucracy."It often seems to doctors, nurses and others who work directly with patients that departmental bureaucracy has little patience with or interest in the problems they experience," says Von Holdt. "Indeed, it frequently seems that health service delivery is secondary or even incidental to the real purposes of the bureaucracy."Instead of analysing management structures and system inadequacies, the focus should be on organisational culture and the informal codes that shape officials' priorities.These processes, including affirmative action and BEE, legitimate a focus by public service officials on their own upward mobility.block_quotes_start The overall result is a devaluing of skills and the spreading of [incompetence] through the bureaucracy block_quotes_endThe other factor is ambivalence towards skill, which according to Von Holdt, is because of skill's complex history in South Africa. Modern skills, such as medical, engineering and scientific skills or those required to manage a modern state, were introduced to South Africa in a manner that bound them up with racial domination.Skill is therefore never only technical, but always necessarily social. It is bound up with the social structuring of power, a line that President Jacob Zuma has been hewing in defence of his appointment of David van Rooyen as finance minister in December last year.Zuma has argued that Van Rooyen was the highest qualified finance minister he has appointed during his two terms as president. Van Rooyen didn't last long because of the negative reaction by financial markets, a reaction Zuma has flagged as a display of power by the private sector.story_article_right2Von Holdt argues that it is because skill is bound up with the social structuring of power that the post-apartheid bureaucracy has three defining features. These are ambivalence towards skill, ongoing contestation over the meaning of skill and its relationship with race, and, as a consequence of these, a growing ambiguity about what constitutes skill."The overall result is a devaluing of skills and the spreading of [incompetence] through the bureaucracy, as senior officials who themselves lack the [competence] to assess the requisite skills in turn appoint and protect underqualified officials below them," says Von Holdt.Hierarchy has also been separated from meritocratic appointment processes. It has become associated with rapid class (black elite) formation, ambivalence towards skill and the assertion of face. Face, in this instance, refers to the state being the domain of African sovereignty as opposed to the apartheid state, for example, which "summed up and elaborated in its harshest form the entire colonial history".And when separated from meritocratic appointment processes, hierarchy becomes an impediment to organisational effectiveness. What's worse is that corruption not only feeds off this lack of effective state institutions but reinforces it.mabheki65@gmail.comSikhakhane is deputy editor of The Conversation Africa..

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