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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.


Politicisation of the civil service is the result of an underlying value system in the society concerned which assumes that the policies of the government of the day or of influential interest groups in that society can only be effectively implemented if at least important parts of that civil service are sympathetic towards or actively support that government or interest group.

Politicisation of the civil service can manifest itself in different ways. Overt political appointment of senior officials who hold key policy-making positions is probably the single most important strategy of politicisation. This can be achieved by deliberately appointing key officials in various ways on the basis of their political affiliations or sympathies. Another strategy is to maintain the myth of a politically neutral civil service while using officials to promote overt or implicit party political or sectional interest group objectives, although they may not initially have been appointed for these purposes. In both cases politicisation amounts to a domination of the civil service by politicians and/or selected dominant interest groups for their own sectional purposes, rather than for the promotion of the so-called "public interest".

In order to assess the degree of politicisation of the South African civil service, the following issues will be addressed in this section :

. the role of the civil service in the dominant South African political culture

. the paradigm shift currently in progress

. recruitment of public officials and political advisers

. the public policy role of officials, and

. political participation of officials.

The Role of the Civil Service in the Dominant South African Political Culture

The myth of a politically neutral civil service was perpetuated for many years in South Africa, as summarised elsewhere (Cloete, F, 1995). The most recent substantial local academic contributions to the debate about the politicisation of the South African civil service in general which could be identified, (Nel, 1974; Hanekom & Thornhill, 1986; Viljoen 1987, Van der Merwe, PJ, 1988; Van der Merwe, S, 1988; Marais, 1989; and Cloete, F, 1991 & 1992), however, show a significant change in the views of critics over time.

Nel (1974) identifies with the traditional classical British school of thought which was originally applied to the South African civil service, namely a supposedly politically neutral civil service. All other contributions take the opposite view, with one exception, namely Marais 1989, who also supports the application of the classical approach in South Africa. The other contributors to the debate accept in principle that top officials in the South African civil service are fully involved in policy advice, management, and even in different degrees and levels of policy making. They do not think that this situation should not necessarily be frowned upon, although for many it still is an open question whether top officials should have contractual appointments as the case is now, or whether they should again become permanent members of the civil service. This also bothers Marais (1989:16).

This controversy about the dominant characteristics of the South African civil service is a symptom of the increasing gap between political idealism and reality which has persisted in the country since the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910 as a British colony. The political perception of South African politicians was from the outset that the Westminister civil service system was successfully transplanted to this country, irrespective of the fact that various successive governments have tried to use the civil service for their own party political benefit by appointing their supporters to influential positions (firstly mainly English-speaking white males, and later mainly Afrikaans-speaking white males).

They also used or allowed officials to promote the interests of the dominant party in many overt and subtle ways (e.g. by drafting party political position papers), while simultaneously acting against officials suspected of loyalty towards political opposition groups (e.gg by denying them access to politically sensitive positions, documents or information). Many officials also voluntarily participated in the refinement and implementation of the apartheid policies of the National Party because they perceived them to be the only feasible political solution in order to maintain their racially privileged position in South African society.

The apartheid civil service was therefore justifiably seen by critics of that regime as a powerful instrument in the enforcement of apartheid. (Republic of SA, 1995:17-20). From this perspective the apartheid civil service is already highly politicised and in no way neutral, as politicians and even the previous Public Service Commission had claimed.

This situation changed dramatically in 1994.

The Paradigm Shift Currently in Progress

In 1994 the longstanding foe of the apartheid regime, the African National Congress (ANC), was elected in post-apartheid South Africa's founding elections as the majority partner in a coalition government of national unity. This confirmed a total paradigm change which had already started two years earlier. This regime change is currently still in progress in South Africa. It has already brought new political elites into an entrenched position of political power. These new political elites have a totally different outlook on political life than was the position with the apartheid elites.

The future South African civil service will probably have to be transformed into a more appropriate and relevant organisation in order to meet the policy needs of the new political regime. This transformation will probably have to be a total transformation, both at normative, structural and functional levels of the civil service. The details of this transformation are dealt with elsewhere (Cloete & Mokgoro, 1995). Summarised, it entails more explicit objectives like the democratisation of public sector management along non-racial and non-discriminatory lines, including more accountability, transparency and developmental objectives. Future incumbents of these managerial posts will also have to reflect more accurately the majority population composition in the country. This may increase the generalist base of the civil service at the cost of current specialists, while current standards of services used in the civil service will probably have to be reviewed and adapted where necessary.

The dramatic regime changes which we are currently experiencing will inevitably pressurise civil service officials into playing two potentially contradictory roles: on the one hand, a very important stabilising role to prevent political instability from hampering the implementation of policies and services; on the other hand, though, senior officials will have to enthusiastically assist the new political regime to design and implement new policies which may radically differ from those developed under National Party direction during the preceding half-century. This may prove to be a tall order for some existing bureaucrats, although others may adapt to this expected dramatic policy change more easily.

Recruitment of Public Officials and Political Advisers

The new government of national unity regards the partial politicisation of the top levels of the South African civil service as a necessary step in order to speed up the transformation process. Explicit new political appointments are seen as inevitable for these purposes. As a result the new 1996 Constitution provides that the appointment of a number of persons in the civil service on policy considerations is not excluded, and that such appointments must be regulated by national regulations (sec 195(4)). This provision is a restatement of, but is also wider than, a similar clause in the Public Service Act, 1994, which still provides explicitly for the appointment by the political head of the department concerned, of heads of departments only on a contractual basis for maximum periods of 5 years (sec 12). The officials concerned must get 2 months' advance notice of the intention to renew or not to renew a contract for a specified period of up to 5 years. All other appointments in the civil service can be permanent or also on a contractual basis, the terms of which are not specified.

The wording of the bill of rights clause in the Constitution also includes the possibility of appointing overt policy or political advisers to a minister. This happened in the initial stages of the transformation process when the new incoming ministers did not have their own trusted appointees as officials in place. They appointed Strategic Management Teams, which acted as temporary political advisers until more legitimate public officials were appointed. The financial costs of these consultants and the emerging conflict between them and the new administrative elites led to the abolition of this mechanism. The possibility however, has not been excluded that a similar system may again be established if the political need for it should arise in future.

Current senior officials constitute a combination of permanent traditional bureaucrats from the apartheid era and short-term, more politically oriented heads of departments and other officials who are contractually appointed for periods of up to five years. Before 1980 contract officials were drawn exclusively from the ranks of former permanent officials legitimate to that government, while under the Botha regime, from 1980, a new style of legitimate, specialist, technocratic appointments from outside the traditional civil service were made in the management cadre of the civil service, from the rank of director upwards (Marais, 1989, Cloete, F, 1992). Since 1994 professional capability has therefore again supplemented political legitimacy as an important criterion for the appointment of new public officials.

The Public Policy Role of Officials

The relationship between politicians and top officials depends on the nature of the political and administrative systems and on the individual personalities involved. Generalist vs specialist orientations and the politicisation of the bureaucracy also play an important part in this. Who is dominant in a departmental setup will depend on the strongest needs and forces in the department concerned at a given time. Politicians and senior bureaucrats constitute a multi-disciplinary leadership and management team which is supposed to give direction to and supervise the implementation of government policies.

The policy role played by senior officials in state departments is therefore a very flexible one which is closely dependent on the cumulative effect of -

. the role played by the political head of that department and his or her working style and preferences,

. the nature of the political forces operating in the department or outside in the wider political system,

. the legal framework within which the department operates, and

. the personalities involved.

These conditions may create a climate either conducive to a major role for creative officials who want to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them, or restricting them from playing such a role if they should want to do so.

All local writers on this topic, with the exception of Nel (1974), acknowledge the substantial input of top officials in the South African civil service into the policy-making process until now. Some top officials are directly involved in policy making. Other officials are more interested in the nuts and bolts of their departmental administration. New roles will, however, have to be developed in both cases in order to deal effectively with new challenges posed by the new political system, especially challenges to overcome current constraints like the problem referred to earlier, where most of the political and bureaucratic top management cadre in the civil service share the same minority value system. These and other issues will have to be addressed soon in order to prepare for the consolidated transformation of the civil service (Cloete & Mokgoro, 1995).

The actual influences on policy in any subsystem are numerous and diverse, and include variable contributions from interest groups, advisory committees, special inquiries, and experts inside or outside the agency in question. However, officials usually play an important part in filtering these influences and in this way selecting the type of pressure on decision makers. This is in itself an extremely important political influence on policy-making and probably impossible to avoid.

The responsibilities of the administrative head of a department are formulated in section 8(3)(b) of the Public Service Act, 1994 as "the efficient management and administration of his or her department, including the effective utilisation and training of staff, the maintenace of discipline, the promotion of sound labour relations and the proper use and care of state property", as well as other functions which may be prescribed by legislation.

It seems as if the activities of top public officials can be described as a combination of generalist co-ordination and brokerage, on the one hand, and specialist advocacy of preferred objectives, on the other. This combines objective activities with subjective and partisan promotion of certain causes, and in some cases may necessitate the full politicisation of the top cadre of the civil service. This is especially relevant for South Africa's future civil service under its first post-apartheid government.

Political Participation of Officials

The 1996 Constitution contains a Bill of Rights which explicitly acknowledges that every citizen has the right to participate in the activities of, or recruit members for, a political party; to campaign for a political party or cause; and to stand for and hold public office (sec 19). This Constitution also specifies that the civil service must loyally execute the lawful policies of the government of the day (sec 197(1)), and that no employee in the civil service may be favoured or prejudiced simply because that person supports a particular political party or cause (sec 197(3)).

A public official may also be a member and serve on the executive of a lawful political party; attend a public political meeting, but may not preside or speak at such a meeting, and may not draw up or publish any writing or deliver a public speech to promote or prejudice the interests of any political party (Public Service Act, 1994,sec 36). Furthermore, in terms of this act a misconduct for any public official to make use if his or her position in the civil service to prejudice or promote the interests of any political party, and departmental proceedings may be instituted against offenders (sec 20(g)). It is a similar misconduct to attempt to secure intervention from political or outside sources in relation to his or her position and conditions of service in the civil service, unless it is aimed at redressing any grievance through Parliament or a provincial legislature (sec 20(h)).

A public official who accepts a nomination for an elected office is, however, deemed to have voluntarily retired from the civil service on the day of accepting the nomination concerned, but can stay on as a public official with the prior permission of his or her political head when nominated for or elected as a member of a local authority or a school board. This permission can be withdrawn if it affects the official's work detrimentally (1994 Public Service Regulation A13).

It is at this stage still unclear to what extent the above provisions of the Public Service Act 1994 and its accompanying Regulations are still compatible with the above-mentioned provisions of the new entrenched 1996 Constitution, as well as compatible with its stated right to free expression (sec 16) and access to information (sec 32). It is, for example, still an open question whether so-called "whistle-blowers" can claim protection under the new Constitution if they expose politically sensitive information about abuses of power and/or contraventions of the law by politicians or other officials in the civil service.


South Africa is currently experiencing a dramatic paradigm shift from an outdated colonial-style, all-pervasive apartheid system to a more open and individualised democratic political culture. This value change is still open-ended and no definitive assessment of its scope, contents and consequences is possible at this moment in time. The fundamental policy changes which are occurring literally from day to day are apparantly moving in the direction of a civil service which is more responsive to general public needs and demands than in the past. In this process the civil service will still be partially politicised, especially at top management levels in departments. No single interest group has, however, so far succeeded in consolidating political control of the public policy process.

The 1996 Constitution contains potentially effective statutory mechanisms to safeguard a wide range of individual and collective rights and freedoms. If these rights and freedoms are upheld by the new democratic legal system which has been established in the country, the potential exists for the development of an effective democratic balance of power among the various organs of state, and consequently for the prevention of domination of one interest group over the rest.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.