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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, 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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Development of the Civil Service

Historical Developments

The development of the national civil service in South Africa is closely linked to the physical, social and political environment; it has its roots in 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 from 1948.

At the time of the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 to establish a refreshment station, the territory was occupied by various indigenous groups. Van Riebeeck and the people forming part of the settlement were in the employ of the Dutch East India Company and they remained subject to the directing body of the Company (the Council of Seventeen) with its head office in Holland. The institutions that came into being during this period were fashioned on those of Holland (Cloete JJN, 1982:2). The officials employed to perform government functions during this time were thus in the service of a company and were of foreign descent.

After 143 years the Cape came under British rule in September 1795. The British philosophy of government and administration was characterised by rule of law, which provides for limited discretion of the executive authority, equality before the law, and an independent judiciary; government authority was divided into legislative, executive and judical authorities, and ministers had parliamentary responsibility implying that the ministers who function jointly as a Cabinet are responsible to Parliament (Hanekom and Thornhill, 1983:10).

The British philosophy was to impact on the political and administrative institutions and practices in South Africa in view of the fact that, following the initial occupation of the Cape in 1795 and after brief Dutch rule from 1803 - 1806, the Cape become a British Colony in 1806 and remained one till 1910. British expansion continued when the territory of Natal was declared a British colony in 1843. The Republic of the Orange Free State was conquered by Britain in 1900, placed under military rule and later administered as a crown colony, while responsible government was introduced in 1907. The South African Republic came into being in the territory later known as the Transvaal in 1858. After the second South African War of Independence (1899-1902) the Transvaal was occupied by Britain. As in the Orange Free State the Transvaal was first placed under military rule, later administered as a crown colony and in 1906 responsible government was granted to the territory. The British system of using a commission to control and oversee civil service personnel management and administration also spread to the various British colonies, i.e. a Board of Examiners was established in the Cape Colony in 1850, a Civil Service Board in Natal in 1894 and a Public Service Board in the Transvaal in 1902 (see Cloete JJN, 1985:48).

The need for co-operation between the four British colonies in Southern Africa became evident after the conclusion of the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging. A National Convention was established at which a draft Constitution for the political unification of the four territories was drawn up. The British Government accepted the proposed constitution and it was passed by Parliament in Westminister as the South Africa Act, 1909, which came into effect on 31 May 1910. In terms of this constitution the colonies Cape of Good Hope, Natal, Orange Free State and Transvaal became provinces of the Union of South Africa.

Although the public institutions and administrative practices of the new Union were largely based on those that had been established in the four colonies during the periods of responsible government (see Cloete, JJN, 1982:18&19), this was the start of a national civil service for the newly created state. The national civil service created was also to include the majority of the officials employed in the administrations of the four provinces (the former colonies). Local government officials were, however, never part of the national civil service.

After Union in 1910 a Public Service Commission was created in 1912 with the power to make recommendations to political functionaries on civil service matters such as the grading and classification of posts, appointments, promotions, termination of service and the organisation and reorganisation of departments. At the time of Union in 1910 there were ten central government departments created to manage and administer the functional areas of agriculture; railways and harbours; internal affairs; mining and defence; justice; education; finance; lands; native affairs; commerce and industries and public works. Civil servants were thus organised functionally. Legislative provision was made for their conditions of service including renumeration, pension, leave and allowances (Coetzee, 1987:42).

The Union of South Africa was not fully independent and it was subordinate to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1934, however, the Union Parliament became the sovereign legislature in the Union with the passing of the Status of the Union Act, 1934.

In terms of the provisions of the Republic of South Africa Constitution Act of 1961 the Republic of South Africa was established outside the Commonwealth and the State President became the head of state.

When the National Party came into power 1948 with the ideology of separate development (apartheid) as policy, various legislative and administrative institutions and practices were instituted over time to operationalise this policy. Firstly, the creation of ten homelands within the South African territory with self-governing status for the various black ethnic groups were iniated. Futhermore, it was provided that these homelands could develop into independent states (four of these homelands did become "independent", namely Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei, referred to as TBVC states). Secondly, in accordance with the provisions of the Republic of South Africa Constitution Act of 1983, a tricameral parliamentary system was created. This made provision for a separate chamber for the White, Coloured and Asian population groups respectively. In these chambers the three groups could legislate separately in respect of matters classified as "own affairs" whilst "general affairs" (which affected all three groups and also the Black population, who were not represented in Parliament) had to be approved by all three chambers. This meant that there were eventually thirteen Houses of Parliament and a quasi-legislative President's Council (established in 1981).

The advent of a new democratic dispensation in 1994 in accordance with the provisions of the interm Constitution of 1993 led to the abolition of the tricameral parliamentary system and the re-incorporation of the homelands and independent states into South Africa. The new government made clear in the White Paper on Reconstruction and Development (Republic of SA, 1994) and the White Paper on Transformation of the Public Service (Republic of SA, 1995b) that it also intended to transform the following constraints from the past in the civil service, namely (Republic of SA, 1995b): lack of representativeness; lack of popular legitimacy; lack of service delivery; centralised control and top-down management; lack of accountability and transparency; absence of effective management information; low productivity; poorly paid and demotivated staff; conflicting labour relations, and lack of a professional ethos and work ethic.

The following transformation priorities and processes for the civil service have been identified (Republic of SA, 1994 and Republic of SA, 1995b): rationalisation and restructuring to ensure a unified, integrated and leaner civil service (a reduction of 200 000 personnel is envisaged) (SAIRR,1995:478); institution building and management to promote greater accountability and organisational and managerial effectiveness; representativeness and affirmative action; transforming service delivery to meet basic needs and redress imbalances; human resource development; employment conditions and labour relations; and the promotion of a professional service ethos.

Historical Dynamics

The outstanding characteristic of the South African civil service have been its growth at a rate greater than the growth in both total population and economically active population and its eventual identity and legitimacy crises.

The reasons given for the growth of the service are population growth (a population growth of approximately 257% between the years 1920 and 1980); urbanisation; changing perceptions on the role of government; deployment of the policy of apartheid; and economic, scientific and technological development (see Coetzee, 1987:164-166). This is illustrated by inter alia the following:

Ø     whereas approximately 1,8% of the population was employed in the public sector (which includes the civil service) in 1920, this percentage increased to 4,5 in 1980;

Ø     in 1989 36% of the total population was economically active, of which 15,1% were employed by the public sector (Mokgoro, 1995:63).

Ø     apart from the Central Parliament with its three legislative Chambers there were ten legislative chambers in the ten homelands and therefore also a proliferation of civil services and concomitant government departments (functionaly organised) for the central government, the four provincial administrations and the ten homelands (pre 1994);

Ø     taking 1980 as a basis year the most salient points emanating from the public sector employment profile are as follows (see Standish, 1987:60-66):

Ø     50% of the total complement of personnel were employed in economic services i.e. Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Forestry, Industries Labour, Mines and Transport and Post and Telegraph Services;

Ø     22% of officials were employed in the education field; and

Ø     11% of officials deliver hospital and health services.

The heterogenous composition of the South African population and the political dynamics resulting from the deployment of the policy of apartheid contributed towards the identity and legitimacy crisis in which the civil service finds itself. In this respect the following need to be underlined, namely:

Ø     although the number of Africans employed by the public sector increased by 1050% between the years 1920 and 1985 and the number of whites by 657% for the same period (Standish, 1987:78&79), Mokgoro (1995:65) points out that of the total of 3239 top civil servants (the five top income categories) 3075 (95%) were whites, 146 (4,5%) were Coloureds and Asian and 18 (0,6%) were African (Statistics for the Homelands excluded);

Ø     it was estimated in 1995 that of the total economically active population of 14 497 000, a total of 1 270 112 or 8,8% were civil service personnel (Republic of South Africa, 1995a:1).

In the progress towards representativeness it is stated (Republic of SA, 1996a:12 (Supplement)) that whilst Whites occupied 94% of the positions in the management echelon of the civil service at the advent of the Government of National Unity (GNU) (March 1994) and Blacks (Africans, Coloureds and Asians) occupied 6% of these positions, 37% of the posts filled in the management echelon in the period March 1994 to January 1996 were filled by Blacks and 63% by Whites. There was also progress in respect of gender. Before the advent of the GNU 95% of all management positions were filled by males and 5% by women. Since GNU and up to January 1996 men filled 90% of the positions in the management echelon and women 10% (Republic of SA, 1996a:13(Supplement)).

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