Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Challenges for the African Academy I: Quality African scholarship

One of the most rhetorically important notions in South African academia is that of `African scholarship’. The University of Cape Town (UCT) has as its explicit objective to `be a world class African university’ and, more recently, to be an `Afropolitan’ university. It is not immediately clear what any of this means. For myself, I have always taken it as obvious that intellectual work in African universities, by African scholars, should be grounded in the history, social context and trajectories of our respective countries and, to an extent, the continent as a whole. Not all work need reflect this grounding, but if only a small proportion does then something is seriously amiss.

Arguments of this sort have, in the last decade, been dramatically extended to suggest that modern `knowledge production’ in our universities should be based on `traditional African’ approaches. One well-known example is in traditional herbal medicine, but the assertion has been extended in a very vague way to the social sciences and even areas like mathematics.

I realised the danger, and absurdity, of some of this rhetoric when attending an Africa-themed research conference a few years ago. More than one speaker, including a senior member of the quasi-governmental Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), simply dismissed intellectual contributions as irrelevant because they were not by Africans. From articles by Xolela Mangcu in Business Day, to the inaugural Thabo Mbeki Leadership conference last year, there has been a recurring desire for a revisionist account of intellectual history; where Plato was schooled by African philosophers, and where there is a distinct African approach to subjects like mathematics. The achievements of various African civilisations have been ignored or dismissed in past historical accounts, and we should of course rectify this. That does not, however, justify excessive romanticisation of the past, or the creation of discernibly false accounts of history. Nor does it justify a parochial account that deprives us of claiming all knowledge as our own – the product of fellow human beings.

A well-known example of romanticisation is the rhetoric around the notion of `ubuntu’ and the claim that prior to colonialists arriving in Africa, African societies were early democracies, where decision-making was egalitarian, wealth was equally distributed and people were at peace with each other and nature. Advocates of this sort of account would do well to read the book by the accomplished, radical Pan Africanist scholar Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, where he states, matter-of-factly, that many African societies were essentially semi-feudalist when the Europeans arrived. (Recall that an aristocratic, feudal society is what was overthrown by the Russian Revolution). This is not to underestimate the damage done by colonialism or the slave trade, but rather, again, to argue against misleading statements about history. There is not much evidence that societies in Africa were on a faster or more pure track to egalitarianism, wealth and further advancement of civilization than other parts of the world.       

A number of very tangible problems arise from the sort of rhetoric described. First, it is very easily used to dismiss inconvenient ideas or colleagues by suggesting that a piece of work is `unAfrican’ or `Western’, and equivalently that the researcher has a `European mindset’. Even if there is some sort of substance behind such statements, they are intellectually sloppy and appear parochial. A second problem is that mediocre academics hide behind the shield of African scholarship. A particular paper is rejected from journals not because it is academically weak but supposedly because ‘African’ ideas are shunned. If the author is criticised by local colleagues these individuals may be labeled ‘un-African’. Again, there are times when ideas are genuinely rejected because they are grounded in an African context unfamiliar, or unwelcome, to foreign journal editors and referees. Too often, however, this is also used to cloak incompetence (and thereby undermine genuine claims of such bias). This in turn can be used to discredit well-founded demands for more substantively African curricula. The notion of substantively African study is arguably what is at stake in the small whirlpool of a debate concerning the Centre for African Studies at UCT; a subject I may discuss at a later stage.  

Advancing quality scholarship

A second problem, directly related to the above, is how to ensure the quality of output by South African researchers. One obvious way is to assess output by the standards of leading international institutions. Another, complementary, approach is to rely on forms of peer review. To put the problem plainly: how would one go about developing an African academy from scratch? Who trains the future academics? By what standards do we judge them to be good at what they do? To make the issues more tangible I will refer to a specific discipline – economics - although it is important to emphasise that there is significant variation across disciplines when it comes to forms of output and peer review.

Internationally, in economics, journal articles are considered of paramount importance as a measure of an individual researcher’s quality. Furthermore, a relatively large weight is placed on journal rankings such as those provided by the ISI. There is an unwritten rule that to get tenure at a top American economics department one must have at least five articles in top-20 journals. To some extent this depends on a researcher’s area of specialization, but it is a useful indicator of the nature of the discipline. By this standard, very few South African economists are of top quality. As Luiz (2010) noted in a survey of the discipline in the South African Journal of Economics, only one South African economist in the preceding five years had published in what are known as the ‘blue ribbon’ journals; distinguished journals, some of which are over a century old, that even now remain in the top 10 or top 15.       

One problem with this approach – leaving aside the extremely contentious issue of journal ranking and its merits - is that it assumes-away the question of what basis we should use to assess researchers’ output. Perhaps in the United States it makes sense to emphasise abstract, theoretical research, while in South Africa we may be more concerned with policy-related work which may be significantly less publishable. Many academics bridle at the idea of attempting to make any comparisons of the usefulness, relevance or importance of different kinds of academic work. There is good reason to be suspicious of such efforts, since academia rarely lends itself to this sort of measurement. However, when one finds academic departments staffed primarily by foreign migrants who are doing identical research to what they would be conducting overseas, and receiving generous subsidies from government for every paper published, the issues cannot be avoided. I am not suggesting such examples are widespread in South Africa, but they do exist and are a direct function of the existing higher education ranking and funding systems. What social benefit is accruing from such a state of affairs?

The challenge of addressing these two sets of issues – encouraging substantively African scholarship that is socially justifiable, while also setting clear quality standards - is one that is not unique to economics, it applies to all academic disciplines in South Africa. In mathematics we may wonder about the appropriate weighting of theoretical versus applied research, while in anthropology it may seem appropriate to place additional weight on research that focuses on important South African issues rather than ones in other societies. In doing this, however, we run into the problem raised previously; mediocre scholars may shelter behind country-specific, or policy-specific, research. In this way, we find ourselves in a bind.

The present state of affairs

What is the current solution to this problem? At the moment it varies significantly across South African universities. Some have professors who have not published in any journals in the top 100 of the economics rankings. Others have people at senior lecturer position who have. In many ways, however, it is the Department of Higher Education and the National Research Foundation (NRF) that direct faculties’ priorities through the way that they allocate funds and thereby indirectly influence promotion criteria. The DHE gives money to departments based on publications in certain ranked journals (including all ISI-ranked journals). The amount given does not, however, vary by the rank of the journal. In other words, you get as much money for publishing in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (often ranked #1) as the South African Journal of Economic and Management Sciences (ranked #202 in 2008). Within some of the top universities, a similar incentive system plays out: promotion and research funding is based primarily on the number of publications rather than the quality of the journals they are in. At other universities publication capacity is so low that even a quantity focus does not suffice to conveniently circumvent the problem, so publication simply gets neglected. This may not be a bad thing, for some of the reasons already mentioned, but let’s continue for the moment to assume that publishing is the most important thing for academics..

The one thing we can say about the international standard is that it is demanding, and a publication in a top international journal is usually enough to know that an individual has a good grasp of a particular area of the discipline. Nevertheless, returning to the specific example, it is unclear how relevant most modern economic research is to South Africa’s economic problems. Our unemployment rates are simply unparalleled in the developed world. Abstract economic theories have shown little, if any, success in addressing substantive and large-scale problems like economic development, sustained growth and poverty-reduction or massive increases in employment. There is not a single country in the world for which work by an economist has been pivotal in informing policies that create economic growth or employment (except perhaps the United States which may have benefited from encouraging other countries to adopt free market policies). Why, then, should we be channeling large sums of money to academics who engage in this kind of research?

The current approach is damaging in this respect and many others. It allows mediocre researchers to produce (possibly ideological) work that is largely irrelevant to South Africa, publish it in low-ranked (often local) journals and yet advance professionally while being unremarkable teachers and receiving significant public funds. Indeed, such individuals may advance significantly more rapidly than counterparts who invest time and resources in their teaching and seek to publish in top international journals – the latter a process which can take up to five years from submission, as compared to less than a year for weak local journals.

The ideal solution may be to require for promotion that academics show they are capable of engaging at the level of the international standard – through some publications in top journals – but remain attuned to the specific nature of South African, and African, problems. Unfortunately, there is little reward (and some risk) to speaking out against the existing system, and most of those with power currently in the system have no incentive to change it – something economists understand all too well.

[Note: Mahmood Mamdani has recently posted an interesting critique of the current state of affairs in scholarship on the continent:
I will comment on this when I look at the recent controversy around UCT's Centre for African Studies]

Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Civil Service Question (Part 2)

Having given an outline of the civil service question in my previous piece, it's worth going into a few aspects in more detail. I'll deal here with two issues in particular. First, characterising explicitly the absence of a serious public sector recruitment programme. While the (often blatant) trade-off between race and expertise is useful to illustrate how far the civil service is from a meritocracy, it potentially obscures the fact that many talented black South Africans are being excluded as well. Second, to make any genuine headway when it comes to the policies governing the public sector, we need to examine the various groupings who have a direct interest in blocking a system of merit-based recruitment and promotion. (A third issue which also merits attention is what a good recruitment, training and career development programme would look like. While important, this is fairly intuitive and I don't have the space to discuss it in this piece).

Entering the Civil Service

As a young South African interested in a career in government where do you start? Perhaps you might go to the main government webpage and look for information on recruitment and selection processes. But there is nothing there. Only information about applying for advertised, vacant posts. So you try individual department webpage, focusing on core departments: basic education, health, transport... Nothing. Only vacancy adverts. Aha, trade and industry has a 'careers' section. Oh, just a blurb and a fancy vacancies template. Department of public service and administration? The website's down.

As far as I know, only one department has a recruitment programme that comes close to a decent international standard, and that is the usual exception: Treasury. In particular, they have a graduate recruitment programme, which incorporates bursaries and internships. Many departments have internship programmes but these are typically advertised on an ad hoc basis, badly managed, badly run and not connected to any explicit or deliberate recruitment or career development plan. Furthermore, most government departments are nowhere to be seen when it comes to careers fairs at top universities across the country. Contrast that to somewhere like the UK, where students from top universities (e.g Cambridge and Oxford) have special transport provided to get them to civil service careers events in London. Is there such a comparative glut of skills in South Africa that government can afford to be so coy?

By contrast, private sector entities, despite being able to offer higher pay and more appealing work environments, have well-publicised, structured recruitment programmes and recruit aggressively for the best candidates and graduates. Anecdotal evidence from undergraduate and graduate students at top South African universities suggests that, regardless of race, very few are interested in, or have even considered, careers in government. And as we have seen above, for those who might be interested there is little to encourage or assist them. Even if we were to keep the racial composition of the public service exactly as it is now, the quality could be improved dramatically by actually putting structures in place to recruit the most talented black graduates. Instead, most departments recruit candidates of significantly lower quality, but later have to headhunt skilled black professionals from the private or other sectors at a significant premium.

Vested Interests

To many people unfamiliar with these issues, such a situation seems incredible. How on earth was this allowed to happen? And why is it being allowed to continue? The first question is really one for a proper history of the transition from apartheid, and I am not going to even try to answer it here. The second question is a little easier to address. Let's focus on some key groups that are either active in maintaining the status quo, or not speaking out against it.The remarkable thing is how these groups are dispersed across the entire spectrum of political views.

Ruling-party politicians and public sector unions

Let's start with the two most obvious groups that have a great deal of influence over the process: the public sector unions and ruling-party politicians. The former have an obvious stake: many of their members are likely to fall below a decent quality threshold, and a significant proportion of these would probably not succeed in 'retraining' to the required standard. Regardless of political views, one needs to be frank about the fact that for unions as organisations it makes very little difference whether their members are less qualified than they ought to be; union membership is not going to be affected, so the focus is on representing current members' interests at any cost. Having said that, one also suspects that more talented and qualified individuals may be less likely to join some of the existing unions which would provide one part of a direct explanation for the defense of the status quo.

What of the politicians? In the previous post I discussed the high turnover of DGs, and how this was usually more a consequence of squabbles with political heads (i.e. ministers) than to do with competence per se. Similar considerations apply to all ranks of the civil service: competent individuals are a threat because they know more than the minister and their advisors, they are more likely to speak up against policies that might be politically convenient but socially damaging,  and by virtue of competence and qualifications they are in a stronger position since they are not as reliant on civil service employment (they could move into the private sector, for instance).

Competence, therefore, is an annoyance to two kinds of politicians: those who want to make policies, or implement existing policies, to score political points at the cost of undermining the official objectives of the department; and, those who want to engage in corrupt or quasi-corrupt practices. To quickly distinguish between those two concepts: 'corruption' would be taking a bribe in a tender process for an otherwise sensible project, while 'quasi-corruption' would be pursuing a non-optimal project because a relative has a company that would benefit from it. The latter is harder to prove and more difficult to prosecute but - interestingly - can do much more damage. (I will discuss this issue in more detail in a later post). Perhaps the most blatant example of abusing the civil service in order to secure political advantage, was what has been called the 'Oilgate' saga. A parastatal, PetroSA, paid a business - which many have only been chosen for its political connections - for a service that was not delivered, because the money was instead channeled to the ruling-party as election funding.

Business and the official opposition

Those are two obvious groups. There are other groups, however, complicit in what has happened to the SA civil service and they can be found on the left and right of the political spectrum. Let's begin with the right. Whether it is the official opposition (the Democratic Alliance), organised business or the parts of the media and academia associated with these, there is an ideological bias against government involvement in society. This is especially the case when the government in question shows any signs of a 'leftist' agenda. These notions of left and right are of course crude, but they are a useful shorthand. Similarly, we can summarise the (explicit or implicit) opposition of these groups to a strong government by the notion of laissez faire or 'small government' philosophy.

Big business (and more niche entities like consulting firms) finds itself in something of a bind when it comes to this issue. In the short-run, it typically benefits from government incompetence. Government overpays for tenders and outsources excessively, relative to what it would if staffed by competent and well-qualified individuals. Furthermore, it is easier for business to engage in brinkmanship when government knows that it is not as well-informed. We have seen such brinkmanship be very successful in a number of key policy clashes, like reform of the banking sector and medicine pricing (to name just two instances). A more competent civil service would, it is true, have come-up with better policies, but would also have been much more confident in pushing them through against self-serving industry opposition. Naturally, business-oriented publications such Business Day and Financial Mail will bemoan government incompetence, but may prefer it to greater government intervention. Other publications and media rely heavily on what I will politely call 'economic commentators', who typically reflect the ideological positions and vested interests of their employers (financial sector companies, consulting organisations and the like).

This is all in the relative short-term. In the longer term, however, as government becomes increasingly incompetent, it may not even be able to appreciate the brinkmanship tactics mentioned previously. In short, the government becomes so incompetent that it begins to make substantial, but seriously damaging, interventions into various areas of society including the economy. Having reaped the benefits of previous government incompetence, businesses now start to find their profitability and international competitiveness under threat. Furthermore, locally they find it increasingly difficult to compete for government work as they become outmaneuvered by enterprises that are prepared to engage in corrupt or quasi-corrupt practices. In the really long run, the wheels of the society come off completely, the economy collapses and many businesses go under. That might sound melodramatic, but there is ample historical evidence for this sort of process in other countries. What this means is that business vacillates between trying to encourage government capacity in some areas (e.g. infrastructure provision) and discouraging it in others (e.g. regulation and consumer protection).

The official opposition by-and-large represents those South Africans who benefit disproportionately from the private sector and/or hold ideological positions that are antithetical to a strong, interventionist government. That, at least, is my explanation for why civil service quality and recruitment has not been an issue on which the opposition has been especially vocal. To the extent that any right-of-centre grouping has been vocal on the subject, it has been the trade union Solidarity. This is for the fairly obvious reason that it represents primarily white workers and has been involved in challenging certain race-based promotion decisions in the public sector (e.g. in the police force).

Left-wing elements of the ruling alliance

What might seem more surprising, is that very little has been said by those on the left of the ruling alliance about these issues, even leaving aside union alliances that include public sector unions. The attitude toward these issues from the two main entities in this part of the political spectrum - the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) - and indeed other more extreme left-wing groups, can be seen in their derogatory references to 'technocrats'. In this sense, technocrats are seen as individuals with some subject-area expertise who use that as a means to dismiss the need for broader consultation or input into decision-making, thereby acting in an anti-democratic manner. Furthermore, such individuals tend to be more closely aligned to centre- or right-of-centre political views.

This view, and the terminology for expressing it, appears to have arisen primarily from these groups' negative experiences in social and economic policy debates from 1996 onwards. [Recall that 1996 was when the macroeconomically conservative Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy was promulgated, and appeared to displace the more socially-oriented Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). (There remains to this day debate about whether GEAR displaced RDP, who was primarily responsible for that, etc.).] The 'technocrats' were typically economists, some in the National Treasury, with fairly traditional views on economic policy and budget deficits, and these views found favour with Thabo Mbeki.

Ironically, however, the notion of technocracy was first developed explicitly by the critically eccentric, but influential, American economist Thorstein Veblen, who proposed it as a means of countering economists' influence on social decision-making (employing the like of engineers instead). Admittedly, the modern interpretation has become more broad. Nevertheless, the employment of highly skilled civil servants would go some way to addressing the many concerns of the SACP and COSATU as regards issues of service delivery, corruption and the like. So much as business opposes state competence to its long-run detriment, so too do these entities oppose it to the cost of the social groups (constituencies?) they claim they are most concerned about.

Black business

A final grouping that needs to be considered is what is typically called 'black business'. By this is normally meant: businesses distinguished primarily by their black economic empowerment (BEE) credentials; aspirant black business people and groupings representing these - most notably, the Black Management Forum (BMF). This broad group fears competence in government, in as much as that might jeopardise the existing emphasis on empowerment credentials and race in government tender processes, as well as efforts to increase that emphasis/weighting. Relatedly, public sector recruitment that places greater emphasis on skills and talent - whether through more aggressive and structured recruiting of black graduates, or less emphasis on race - would set a precedent which may then be used to roll-back the emphasis on race in tender processes.

An interesting historical note

After using the term, it occurred to me to try and find historical references to the 'civil service question'. In doing so, I came across a 19th century American movement known as the Civil Service Reform League, which focused on the 'efficiency' of the civil service and lobbying for improvements in this regard. In the next decade a key piece of policy (and important extensions thereof) was passed - the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act - which sought to entrench the principle of merit in civil service recruitment. The social context in South Africa is of course importantly different, but we could certainly do with an equivalent of the Civil Service Reform League.

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Civil Service Question

For some years now I have been trying to get articles published in South African newspapers on what I like to call `the civil service question'. In stark contrast with other issues I have written about, I have had no success whatsoever. So here is an attempt at raising the issue through another medium. (The reasons for the media's lack of interest in this issue are interesting in themselves, but those will need to be the subject of another piece).

The civil service question

What is the civil service question? To the extent it can be summarised, it is the question: What kind of civil service do we want in South Africa? 

There are, of course, many components to this. For a start, do we want a politicised civil service like the United States, where new political heads bring with them new civil servants? Or a less politicised one like the United Kingdom where top civil servants are called 'permanent secretaries' for a reason? Or some other point on the spectrum of possibilities (I mention the UK and US only because I have more knowledge of those countries than others)?

Another issue is the extent to which the civil service should prioritise achieving demographic representation relative to other objectives, like the recruitment of the most skilled candidates. Some claim that there is no such tradeoff, but - as I will discuss below - this is a ridiculous argument.

Within the civil service, what are considered the more important categories of employees? Managers in national departments, groups with specific skills like teachers and nurses, local municipal managers or manual labourers? Every category has a role to play, but where are vacancies tolerable and where are they dire? If the supply (or quality thereof) of a particular group is inadequate, are we prepared to invest in increased training and higher wages?

Answers to these sorts of questions determine the structure of the civil service in many respects. That includes recruitment processes, employment contracts, training initiatives and the attitude of civil servants to their jobs. All this, in turn, has a massive impact on the quality of the civil service and the actual services it delivers to the South Africans that provide the democratic mandate and financial support for this social institution.

The problems with the existing civil service are well-known: corruption, incompetence, lack of skills, poor work ethic and an arrogance that precludes empathy. This is not the case in all of government, but the departments where these problems are not widely prevalent are usually well-known exceptions. I would suggest that this state of affairs reflects the greatest failure of the post-1994 South Africa and the successive ANC governments which have led us over the last 17 years. Besides Thabo Mbeki's Batho Pele initiative, which anyway aimed to address only the symptoms rather than the causes, I would suggest that there has been little or no principled leadership when it comes to addressing the civil service question. 

Some Examples

It is easy to get embroiled in very abstract analysis of these issues, but I find it useful to consider real-world examples. Having worked in government in the past decade, I experienced and observed many of the consequences of a civil service lacking in leadership, principles and direction. Here are illustrations of just two of the most pressing, and often very basic, problems.

Who runs the show?

The department I arrived in had experienced a procession of director generals( DGs), at a rate of almost one per year. When I arrived the post was vacant, and within a year a new individual had been appointed and then encouraged to leave. The same story can be told, to varying degrees of absurdity, across most national government departments and a decent number of provincial and local departments as well. Why does this happen?

The main reason, in most cases, is that ministers believe that they are the ones who run the department. At the same time, ministers (when they arrive, and even sometimes when they leave) usually have little, if any, knowledge or expertise in the area in which their department works. Furthermore, the Presidency - which is responsible for managing relationships between ministers and their civil service heads - has failed to clarify the boundaries of the ministers' roles and often fails to rein-in their egos. Many extremely competent individuals have been fired, or had their contracts `expire', because a minister's ego was bruised by a civil servant who was reluctant to take orders from someone largely ignorant of the issues. With very few exceptions, the civil servant is the one that has to go. So widespread is this problem that - in a country with major skills shortages - there remain increasingly few prospective, properly qualified, individuals who can act as DG and have not already been dismissed from the post. The result is that many DGs are now no longer subject experts, but rather people with some management track record who are either politically `aligned' or simply very compliant in the face of ministerial diktat.

Transformation or competence?

One of the major challenges in the early 1990s was to transform the civil service from one that was the primary weapon of the apartheid state, to one which would embody and pursue the objectives of a newly democratic country under the leadership of an ANC government. Notice that this transformation is not, at its base, about race. It is about attitude. It was also to some extent about skills, since many apartheid bureaucrats were also incompetent - the civil service being used as a means of keeping white people employed, regardless of whether they were necessary or not. 

Unfortunately, the transformation imperative has been largely interpreted along racial lines. The department I worked for had at one point in time 90-95% of its full-time staff classified as `black Africans'. All other racial groups were underrepresented. Now you might argue that, statistically, some departments will end-up with fluctuations over or under the national demographics. The problem with that argument is that it assumes a level-playing field when it comes to skills, expertise and experience. Some have disputed that there is any tradeoff between skills and racial representation. Significantly, Jimmy Manyi made this argument - as BMF President and DG of Labour - in relation to firms' claims that they were having difficulty transforming their work force because of a lack of skills. To me it is obvious that anyone who makes this argument wants to have their cake and eat it. They want to argue that apartheid was a bad thing because it oppressed and disadvantaged black people, but yet black people are just as skilled and well-educated as their white counterparts. We all agree on the first part, but the second part is just absurd. Nothing - not anecdotal evidence, or the data provided by the government-run StatsSA - supports that view. This doesn't mean there aren't some highly skilled, brilliantly talented, black South Africans; there are, but not enough to fill the positions we would want to be filled by black people in order to have proper representation.

Why would anyone make this claim then? Because, as has recently been noted by some others, it serves certain interests. In particular, it serves a narrow, black nationalist agenda by which certain groups of individuals hope to advance themselves to the most well-paid positions on the basis of their skin colour rather than qualifications, abilities or even motivations. (Jacob Dlamini has scathingly denoted these people 'professional blacks'). You thought the Jimmy Manyi - Trevor Manuel clash was an important event relating to race issues, but actually I would suggest it is more important in terms of its implications for, and insinuations about, the civil service. This has begun to draw some attention - see this piece and the quotes in it from a former senior civil servant.

The consequences of prioritising racial transformation over competence are simple. Those who benefit from civil service appointments based on race will win, those who rely on the scale and quality of service delivery will lose. Some black people will become (relatively) well-off quite quickly, while most will have to wait much longer for the quality of their lives to improve than they would have had to otherwise. 

Choices Made     

Despite the fact that these issues are not really being discussed, everyday someone, somewhere is making decisions that effectively reveal which direction we are choosing for our civil service. There remain significant vacancy levels and devastating low skills in core groups like teachers, nurses and technical professions like engineering. Corruption seems never-ending, as illustrated by the mountains of work that keeps piling-up for institutions like the Special Investigations Unit. (Of course, we should recognise that the SIU being called-in by departments is a silver lining to this particular cloud). Dozens of DGs have been fired because of 'relationship breakdowns' with ministers, who have often then been moved to other portfolios - rubbing salt further in the wounds. On the other hand, a number of DGs have continued serving in senior positions despite very serious allegations of misconduct - Manyi himself is an example, but there are others. Many departments have succeeded in surpassing demographic representation of black people (broadly or narrowly defined) but are failing massively on service delivery. 

Perhaps the most obvious symptom of the malaise in the civil service, and the lack of principled, political leadership in this regard, is the absence of a structured recruitment and career development programme whereby government seeks to get the best possible people to be civil servants. This is not a coincidence; such a programme would threaten some very powerful interest groups. Nevertheless, the complete failure to do this at entry level means that departments often have to bring-in consultants to do any genuinely skilled work. Ironically, in the department where I worked, 90%+ of my colleagues were black Africans but 90% of the consultants were white and 35-45% of the wage bill went to consultants. The rest of the maths is simple. So in fact, even the racial transformation is superficial. Government itself is guilty of 'fronting' for precisely the same reasons as some businesses; white people are disproportionately skilled because of apartheid and it is much easier to use them than fix the education system and put in place proper scholarship and training programmes.

The most aggravating thing about all of this, is the attention focused on policies and targets, while hardly anyone is asking whether maybe we should focus more on improving the system, and the people in it, that is supposed to implement these policies and achieve those targets. The media is as culpable as the politicians. The Mail and Guardian scorecard, as one example, is full of crude and superficial assessments based often on minister's personal efforts - encouraging the idea that ministers are the ones who are really responsible for results. 

Frustrated by government failures on various fronts, many find the idea of being able to snipe at ministers quite appealing, but it is wrongheaded. Ministers are political figureheads for departments and in that sense must of course take some blame when things go wrong. But if we are interested in substance rather than form we should focus our attention elsewhere. Until we confront the civil service question, South Africa will never come close to achieving its social and economic potential.