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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Public Opinion

In this section public opinion about the South African civil service will be discussed. By now it should be well established from the previous sections that South African society has historically been a divided society and that it is presently in a state of transition, showing characteristics of its historical past and hopefully emerging into a new united future. These divisions of the past and their present legacy have had and still have a profound influence on the civil service in terms of its culture, structures and functioning.

As can be expected, public opinion about the civil service will also mirror the past and present cleavages and divisions in South African society. Formaly disadvantaged citizens could be expected to have had very negative perceptions about the legitimacy and efficiency of the previous civil service.

Formaly advantaged citizens might have had concerns about the efficiency of the civil service in line with generally held public perceptions 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.

At present, during the phase of transition and at the start of fundamental transformation, the perceptions will still reflect the heritage of the past. It is the opinion of the authors that perceptions about the legitimacy of the civil service have recently improved in respect of 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 on the side of the white middle class, who feel the pressures of losing their previously privileged positions. Coloured citizens are hypothesised to be generally perceiving the present civil service on a scale from suspicious to neutral in respect of legitimacy and efficiency.

In the following sections these tentatively stated assumptions about public opinion and perceptions will be developed further. This will be done by referring to documented and reported viewpoints.

Perceptions of the South African Civil Service

Pre-transition perceptions

The transition of South Africa society become highly visible since the famous speech to Parliament made by the then President FW de Klerk on the 2nd of February 1990. During the first Winelands Conference on Public Administration held in 1987 Sonn (1987:319-320) provided a vivid description about the perceptions of the civil service held by the disadvantaged communities prior to the transition. He stated the following:

If the requirements of government are to produce "happiness" and "safety", and if the civil service is the arm of government to produce this state of content, it speaks for itself that where a government, through its laws and practices, produces unhappiness and insecurity, even an efficient civil service would be hard-pressed to ameliorate the negative impression of the public service as the executors of unpopular and oppressive policies and measures.

In this sense, the civil service will per definition be placed in the invidious position of sharing the negative effects of an unpopular and resented government. This problem is compounded by the traditional practice that the civil service either kow-tows to government or at the very least remains uncritical of it. This silence is generally interpreted as collusion and even approbation. In such circumstances, the best efforts of the civil service will be ignored and its failings emphasised.

Furthermore, there will be an inclination to view civil servants as collaborators in the dispensing of hurtful measures. At the very least, the public image of the civil service will be deeply affected by the impression held by the community of the government under which they serve. This, unfortunately, is inevitable. If this is so, the civil service owes it to itself to consider whether it is appropriate under such circumstances to continue to maintain an acquiescent silence in the face of abject discrimination represented by the policy of apartheid.

This quote vividly illustrates the very negative perceptions held of the government of the day and the effect of this on perceptions of the civil service. Mr Sonn, who is currently the South African ambassador to the United States of America, also conveys the opinion that such a glaring lack of legitimacy has to be challenged by the civil service as even its best efforts at efficiency would otherwise be contaminated in such a situation.

This negative perception of the civil service prior to the start of the transition in South Africa is confirmed by Mokgoro (1991: 31-35). He is very adamant that the civil service delivered services which benefited only a minority of the population and that black people were at the receiving end of discrimination, corruption and inefficiency in service delivery.

The result was that blacks perceived the civil service as a controller rather than an initiator of development. The bureaucracy of the time was perceived to be serving the interests of an illegitimate government and was seen to be unrepresentative, unaccountable and itself illegitimate. The civil service was seen as over-politicised and controlled by the National Party government. Mokgoro (1991: 34) also reports perceptions of the civil service as secretive and wasteful.

These highly negative perceptions of people from previously disadvantaged communities should be compared with perceptions of the beneficiaries of the previous regime. It is the considered opinion of the author that whites might have had concerns about the inefficiency, red tape and possible wastefulness of the South African civil service prior to the transition. Very few, however would have perceived it in such starkly negative terms as Sonn and Mokgoro quoted above. Some confirmation for this point of view can be found in an elite opinion survey study reported on by Kotze and du Toit (1995:27-48). In this study, conducted during May to July 1992, people who fill the top positions in the most resource-rich institutions in South Africa were polled on numerous matters. As this was done very shortly after the start of the transition phase, it can be reasonably assumed that this elite survey would be indicative of opinions and perceptions held by previously advantaged groups. This assumption would definitely be justified for elite sectors with influential and powerful positions in the then establishment-orientated sections of society.

The survey measured the attachments of respondents in terms of sympathy/antipathy toward a wide range of institutions. From the findings an index, called the core state, was constructed representing the executive, administrative and coercive components of the state. This index included, inter alia, the civil service, the South African Defence Force and the SA Police. It was found that supporters of the National Party, as the incumbent ruling party at the time, as well as supporters of the white right wing party, the Conservative Party, showed a high level of sympathy for the core state. Low levels of sympathy for the core state were measured from the ranks of the supporters of mainly black political groupings, such as the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress. From the survey it is therefore evident that for blacks the views of Sonn and Mokgoro are confirmed, while for whites the author's view, stated above, namely that white perceptions of the pre-transition civil service were generally positive, also finds some support.

In the following section attention will be given to the next phase of transition and changing perceptions as the political transition progresses.

Perceptions during the transition

After the 2nd of February 1990 events in the transition followed one another rapidly, culminating in the April 1994 elections and the inauguration of the Government of National Unity (GNU) in May 1994. Simultaneously the executive and administrative arrangements also underwent another round of changes. Structurally the various separate institutions created for "population groups" and the "homelands" started undergoing a process of amalgamation. A policy and programme of affirmative action was also put into place to improve the representativeness of the civil service institutions. These developments gained momentum during 1994 after the coming to power of the GNU referred to above.

That these changes influenced perceptions generally is a truism. These changes in perceptions are graphically illustrated in a survey during 1992 by the Human Sciences Resource Council (HSRC). This survey polled 5320 members of the Public Service Association (PSA), a body mainly representing white civil servants at the time. The survey (Wessels & Viljoen, 1992) found that at the time of the survey, the PSA consisted, mainly of Afrikaans-speaking males with permanent appointments in the civil service. They had more than five years of service, educational qualifications higher than a secondary school leaving certificate and tended to be supporters of the National Party. Some of the interesting findings were that significant numbers of those polled and especially the supporters of traditionally white political parties believed that after the transition:

     merit would disappear from civil service appointments and promotions;

     political appointments would be made to replace existing staff;

     civil service provision would become less efficient and effective; and

     their career security would come under pressure.

These perceptions are also reflected in a speech given by Mr Ton Vosloo, the Executive Chairman of Nasionale Pers, a powerful Afrikaans media group, to a student audience at the Rand Afrikaans University in May 1996. His speech is reported in Die Burger, a prominent Afrikaans newspaper, on 15 May 1996. He is very critical about the affirmative action policies pursued by the new government and requests the authorities to suspend their drive to get rid of good, knowledgeable and technically experienced officials from all levels of government. He argues that this drive to get rid of experienced officials is the biggest mistake committed so far by government. It cannot be expected that an advanced and modern state will be administered in an efficient way if its expertise is lost due to politically inspired affirmative action drives.

The tenor of Vosloo's views coincides with the sentiments expressed in the opinion poll of civil servants belonging to the PSA referred to above. This also tends to confirm the provisional suppositions made by the authors in the introductory paragraph above.

In a public opinion survey conducted by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa, 1996) and published in February 1996 further confirmation for these provisional points of view is provided. Generally the poll found:

     ethical issues and corruption in public office constitute real and widespread public concerns;

     there is widespread popular concern and even doubt about the current ethical standards of elected leaders; and

     there is significant public support for measures to promote ethical reform.

Some particular findings were that only 24% of respondents felt that corruption decreased from the former apartheid government and 41% think that corruption actually increased. The authors of the Idasa (1996) report stress that the findings do not indicate that actual levels of corruption increased, but that a substantial proportion of citizens perceive the new democratic government to be at least as corrupt if not more corrupt than its predecessor.

The Idasa (1996) findings also reflect a marked difference in viewpoints about honesty and corruption between whites and other population groups in terms of honesty of government leaders. 29% of the entire people say elected leaders are more honest than ordinary people. The figures for the different population groups who think elected leaders are more honest than ordinary people vary by race in the following way: Africans 34%, Coloured 30%, Asians 30%, Whites 10%. This indicates the higher levels of cynicism among Whites and is in accordance with previously stated assumptions.

A final finding to illustrate differing perceptions based on previously stated assumptions is provided in research on public opinion by Schutte (1995). He polled South Africans about their perceptions on, amongst other things, whether the effectiveness of the police service increased subsequent to the coming to power of the new government. The poll was taken in May/June 1995 and found that the greatest single proportion of respondents (35%) felt that effectiveness had improved or improved a lot while 25% felt that it had deteriorated or deteriorated a lot. Once again African (43%), Coloured (30%) and Indian (39%) respondents were inclined to think the effectiveness of the police service improved, while a mere 7% of White respondents thought that the effectiveness improved with 51% of White respondents believing that the effectiveness deteriorated.

The above findings seem to provide provisional indications of public perceptions about government and its service delivery systems in the changing South Africa. They seem to indicate markedly different perceptions between population groups.

Future Expectations

The transitional phase in South African governance and administration is still under way. Major recent developments are the acceptance by the Constitutional Assembly of the Constitution which replaced the Interim Constitution and the withdrawal of the National Party from the Government of National Unity (GNU) in May 1996.

Perceptions and public opinion will be influenced by these events, while especially a more oppositional role of the National Party may enhance negative perceptions amongst those people who stand to lose materially and otherwise through the transition phase and the final transformation of the South African state and its administrative apparatus. 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. The trends will be interesting to follow. This warrants further and continuous longitudinal research and observation.

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.