Call for SANDF to be part of professionalising the public service

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Cyril Ramaphosa’s call for a professional public service in his latest Presidential Newsletter has drawn wide response, including from a respected defence analyst who takes the history of South Africa’s democratic national defence force as an object lesson.

Going back to the early days of democracy in 1994, Helmoed Heitman points to Joe Modise, the first defence minister of the democratic era. “He specifically precluded replacing general and flag officers with MK personnel because they did not have the expertise or experience and put even the most senior MK personnel into, in effect, understudy posts to give them time to get traction and learn the ropes.”

The man who was part of Roelf Meyer’s committee responsible for the 2012 Defence Review (later rechristened the 2015 Review by current Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula), maintains “arguably the cardinal error made by the ANC when it came to power was replacing DGs (directors general), DDGs (deputy directors-general) and even CDs (chief directors) who were professional civil servants with decades of experience, with political appointees who, no matter how well-educated and well-meaning, mostly had little or no practical experience”.

Heitman maintains Modise’s approach worked. “It paid off: We recognise the problems in the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) and its weaknesses, but every time it is called on, it somehow pulls the rabbit out of the hat, does the job and generally does it well,” he told defenceWeb.

As with many decisions in and affecting the SANDF “there have been some strange, even very strange, senior appointments. Officers involved in promotion boards complain their recommendations are too often ignored and appointment decisions seem to be taken somewhere outside the SANDF and the Department of Defence (DoD)”.

“Despite those real issues, the machine still functions, even if it backfires a lot.”

Heitman agrees with the SANDF Commander-in-Chief on professionalising the public service. “It has to go all the way – the civil service, SANDF, SA Police Service (SAPS) – the lot”.

He is also supportive of entrance exams calling them “outstanding” with the rider they will mean “the end of cadre deployment and I’m not sure the ruling party will stand for that”.

Turning specifically to the national defence force, a government department where the large majority of employees wear uniform and have skills vastly different to their pen-pushing, mouse-clicking colleagues in, for example, Home Affairs, Heitman wishes it could tell politicians to stay away from appointments and promotions.

“Ruling party apparatchiks have no business fiddling in such matters.”

There is, he admits, a good argument to be made for the SANDF Chief and perhaps all three-star appointments to be approved by Parliament.

“The business of defence grows out of politics and affects politics, so there is good sense in ensuring the people heading up the military have the full confidence of Parliament and – insofar as possible, not very far I suspect – they have full confidence in Parliament and the country’s political leadership.”

Both the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) responded to the presidential missive with the political party saying the 1 March newsletter was a repeat of 21 January last year. Randburg-based OUTA, via its public governance project manager Thabile Zuma, agree with Ramaphosa stressing it is time for “a concrete and urgent plan to professionalise the public service”.

“The plan,” an OUTA statement has it “must recognise how much public money is wasted on paying salaries of middle- and high-earning individuals who are corrupt, apathetic or incompetent. The result is economic decline and a lack of trust and satisfaction in public services”.

“OUTA is concerned that the public service is plagued with unethical conduct. This results in ongoing problems of diversion of resources, low quality services, bid rigging, bribery, patronage, nepotism, conflict of interest, awarding of contracts to incompetent service providers or personnel and the use and abuse of official and confidential information for private purposes,” the statement said.

DA shadow public service and administration minister Leon Schreiber points to cadre deployment as a problem area when it comes to creating a professional public service with the emphasis on service.

“The most important part of Ramaphosa’s newsletter is he, again, ignores the elephant in the room. All the problems the President is fond of whining about result directly from a single ANC policy: cadre deployment,” he said in a statement.



“Instead of complaining like a powerless spectator on the side, Ramaphosa would do well to be honest by admitting to South Africans he helped cause the problem he now whinges about. Between 2013 and 2017, he was chairman of the ANC’s cadre deployment committee that – in his own words – ‘hired and promoted [people] to key positions for which they are neither suitable nor qualified’.”