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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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.


The early development of a civil service system in South Africa can be traced back in history from the time of the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 to establish a refreshment station and the initial 143 years under Dutch rule, through the two centuries of British occupation up to the creation of a national civil service system for the newly created South African state, when four British colonyies were amalgamated to form the Union of South Africa in 1910. When the National Party came into power 1948 with the ideology of separate development apartheid as policy, various legislative and administrative institutions and practices which lead to a fragmentation of the civil service system were instituted over time to operationalise this policy. A priority for the new government after the advent of the new democratic dispensation in 1994 is the rationalisation and restructuring of the fragmented civil service system to ensure a unified, integrated and leaner civil service. The outstanding characteristics of the South African civil service are its growth at a rate greater than the growth in both total population and economically active population and its eventual identity and legitimacy crises resulting from the deployment of the policy of apartheid. It was concluded that the development of the National Civil Service in South Africa was closely linked to the physical, social and political environment as well as to the political and administrative institutions and practices brought to the country by settlers and colonists and the policy of separate development (apartheid) of the governing political party, which was in power for more than 44 years.

The analysis of the internal labour market in the South African civil service system led to the conclusion that the civil service system conforms to the characteristics of a system that is centralised and highly structured in its job classification system with rigid position classification, narrowly defined specialist positions, limited interdepartmental mobility, and an emphasis on educational requirements for posts. Where a central independent agency, the Public Service Commission, was responsible for exercising the personnel management function under the previous regime, the indications are that the presents government intends to decentralise the personnel function on a ministry-by-ministry basis, a subject to statutory requirements and national norms monitored and set by the Ministry for Public Service and Administration at national level. An affirmative action programme was also put into place after the new government came to power in 1994 to achieve the aims of the constitutionally stated objective of a broadly representative civil service. To implement this programme and to reduce the size of the civil service, premature retirement and voluntary severance packages were offered to officials complying with certain requirements. In 1996 a new salary grading system was accepted to be implemented over a period of three years with the effect of reducing the existing multitude of salary scales substantially as well as minimising the wage gap between the lowest and highest paid civil servants.

In addition to the pluralistic nature of South African society, the concept of representativeness is heavily influenced by the transition which the society is at present experiencing and will be experiencing into the next century. Representation within the South African civil service reflects past policies, and especially the ideology of apartheid, a type of ethnic socialism, practised by governments from 1948 to the early 1990s. The new 1996 Constitution guarantees equal opportunities for all South Africans. As far as the civil service is concerned, the policy of the government places heavy emphasis on equal employment opportunities. As a result of the imbalances of the past which created and perpetuated a situation where a minority elite of white (mostly Afrikaans-speaking) males could occupy almost 90% of all managerial positions in the civil service, the government embarked on a programme of affirmative action. The ultimate goal of the affirmative action programme is to create a civil service which will, within the shortest possible time, reflect the diversity of South African society.

The myth of a politically neutral civil service was perpetuated for many years in South Africa 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. From this perspective the apartheid civil service was already highly politicised and in no way neutral as politicians and even the previous Civil service Commission had claimed. This situation changed dramatically in 1994 when the long-standing foe of the apartheid regime, the African National Congress (ANC), was elected in post-apartheid South Africa's founding elections as the majority party. The fundamental policy changes which are occurring literally from day to day are apparently 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. The new 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. No single interest group has, however, so far succeeded in consolidating political control of the public policy process.

As can be expected, public opinion about the civil service also mirrors the past and present cleavages and divisions in the South African society. The previously disadvantaged citizens could be expected to have had a very negative perception about the legitimacy and efficiency of the previous civil service. The previously advantaged citizens might have had concerns about the efficiency of the civil service in line with a generally held public perception of bureaucracy and red tape in the civil service. At the same time the majority of them were beneficiaries of the state and most probably would have had fewer negative perceptions about the legitimacy of the previous civil service. The perceptions about the legitimacy of the civil service have recently improved among the previously disadvantaged communities. This improvement is gradual and probably the greatest amongst black middle-class perceivers, who are benefiting most from general affirmative action policies and personnel practices. At the same time there is probably a decrease in perceptions of legitimacy and especially in perceptions of efficiency among the white middle class, who feel the pressures of losing their previously privileged positions. A tentative guess is that perceptions of ineffectiveness, inefficiency and poor performance will increase overall as the huge challenges lead to an increased realisation that delivery is going to take a long time and inequalities will remain for the foreseeable future. By and large these negative perceptions will increase amongst all population groups, but will be the greatest amongst the White group.

After coming into power in 1994, the new democratically elected government embarked on a process designed to fundamentally reshape the civil service to fulfil its role in the new dispensation. This process is generally referred to as the transformation and is to be distinguished from the broader, longer-term and ongoing process of administrative reform, which will be required to ensure that the South African civil service remains in step with the changing needs and requirements of the domestic and international environments. Over the last two decades the South African civil service system, like many governments elsewhere, came increasingly under severe stress due to resource constraints. Although the apartheid ideology, as one of the important causes of this stress, is unique compared to other countries, there is, looking at the international experience, a remarkable commonality of the reform policy options considered by both the apartheid and democratic South African governments to those of reforms elsewhere.

An attempt to analyse the South African civil service system in terms of both Heady's and Morgan's configurations leads to different but interesting results. The South African civil service system fits the party-controlled configuration of Heady's analysis. Except for the "sense of mission" variable which displays attributes of three configurations, the assessment of the South African civil service system in terms of each of the other four variables shows a remarkable internal cohesiveness to fit convincingly into this category. This will place South Africa in a similar configuration than countries such as Egypt, Mexico and Malaysia. The emerging trends, although speculative at this early stage, could point in the direction of a possible future development pattern towards a majority-party responsive system.

Whereas the analysis in terms of Heady's configurations does not show any profound shift or change from the apartheid to the democratic regime, the application of Morgan's configurations for developing countries is illuminating in this regard. South Africa does not fit clearly into one of the four macro-institutional environments or fields identified by Morgan. In the assessment of the state or regime by using the two variables of institutionalisation and public attitude towards the state, the South African civil service system could be placed in a position somewhere near Mexico towards the institutional & pro-state poles in quadrant III. However, when the parameters which more directly characterise the civil service system, that is tension between process and outcomes and versus the degree of political responsiveness, are considered, the South African civil service system falls in quadrant II, which is closer to the process and political responsiveness poles.

It would seem, however, that South Africa is moving away from the absolutist field (with a mix of positivist norms for the civil service) towards either the patrimonial or pragmatic fields. The drift towards the patrimonial field could, however, be countered if the level of institutionalisation is increased and protected by the legal system. The increased realisation amongst all population groups that delivery is going to be slow and inequalities will remain for the foreseeable future, could shift public opinion towards the anti-state pole of the continuum. The combined effect of these two forces could possibly pull South Africa towards the pragmatic field.

The somewhat confusing picture with signals depicting different and conflicting characteristics could be explained in terms of the current transition where the civil service system displays properties from both the old and the new at the same time. A new South African civil service system is undoubtedly in the process of being distilled from these different attributes but the field towards which it is moving will only become clear in the years to come when a new dominant value system has finally emerged. Perhaps South Africa is one of the cases which could fit into a separate field (quadrant V)?

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