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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Reform and Transformation

Over the last two decades the South African civil service system, like many governments elsewhere, has increasingly come 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 compared to that of reforms elsewhere. In this section the institutional reform initiatives will be discussed under the headings of firstly structural reforms, secondly budgetary and financial reforms, thirdly procedural or technical reforms and, finally, relational reforms.

Structural Reforms

In one of the earlier attempts at structural reorganisation at the centre the new PW Botha Nationalist government, in the wake of the so-called information scandal, in 1979 launched a broadly conceived rationalisation programme which resulted in structural changes, especially with regard to departmentalisation at the central government level. The aim, according to the White Paper on the Rationalisation of the Public Service and Related Institutions (Republic of SA, 1980a: 4), was to reorganize government functions with the view to creating a smaller number of better coordinated government departments. The regrouping of the central government executive functions on a basis of functional relationships and administrative efficiency resulted in a decrease in the number of state departments from 39 to 24 by the end of 1980. The relinking of parastatal institutions to government departments in terms of functional affinity formed part of this process (Van Zyl, 1981:160).

Following the amalgamation of departments and the transfer of functions to arrive at the new departmentalisation pattern, attention was focused on the internal reorganization of departments, particularly the integration of related functions. However, before the rationalisation programme as originally envisaged could be fully completed, developments in the constitutional arena demanded that a further thorough revision had to be embarked upon. The 1983 tricameral constitution brought the Coloured and Asian population groups into government by way of a "power-sharing" arrangement: Parliament consisted of 3 different chambers for the White, Coloured and Asian groups, where they governed seperately in terms of their "own affairs" separately "general affairs" were governed collectively. The effect of the implementation of the 1983 constitution was that groups of administrative structures were established in the form of administrations to serve the "own affairs" of the three population groups. All departments were subjected to investigations to identify and transfer the "own affairs" functions to the respective Houses of Parliament (Republic of SA, 1985: 17-18).

The proliferation of legislative, governmental and administrative institutions by the mid- 1980s created numerous situations which did give rise to disfunctioning or caused a loss in effectiveness and efficiency of the civil service system. By 1986 the Republic of South Africa was burdened, according Cloete (1986:96-97), by a multiplicity of public institutions: Firstly, there were the legislatures which included Parliament with its three Houses and the President's Council as an adjunct, the legislative assemblies of the six self-governing national states which had considerable legislative powers, the four provincial authorities which lost their elected councils (see discussion on decentralisation) but which still had subordinate legislative powers, and the approximately 1000 municipal councils (for Blacks, Whites, Coloureds and Asians) which were authorised to make by-laws or regulations. Mention should also be made of the four parliaments of the four independent national states (the TBVC states for Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei), which were technically no longer subject to the Parliament of the RSA, but whose legislation could affect the RSA. Secondly, each of the above-mentioned legislatures had one or more governmental institutions of its own, namely the Cabinet and Ministers' Councils attached to Parliament and its three Houses, the cabinets of the six self-governing states, the executive committees of the four provincial authorities, and the management/executive and other committees of the approximately 1000 municipal councils. Thirdly, the legislatures had their own administrative machinery operating under their governmental institutions: without taking into account the various statutory bodies, the civil service of South Africa, by the time the new democratically elected government came into power in 1994, consisted of 38 departments and administrations (the latter being further subdivided) representing a work force in the order of 750 000 civil servants. The civil services of the former TBVC states combined consisted of 76 departments and a total of roughly 210 000 staff members. The combined administrations of the former self-governing territories consisted of 62 departments with a total work force of approximately 270 000 civil servants. This adds up to 176 departments with a total personnel compliment of roughly 1,23 million civil servants (Republic of SA, 1995a:9).

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, generally referred to as the transformation, is distinguished from the broader, longer-term and ongoing process of administrative reform, which will be required according to the White Paper (Republic of SA, 1995b:85) to ensure that the South African civil service remains in step with the changing needs and requirements of the domestic and international environments. This transformation was regarded by the government as a dramatic, focused and relatively short-term process, lasting no more than two or three years. The target date for the first stage of the restructuring and rationalisation process was set for end of October 1996: this stage involved the creation of a unified and integrated service at both national and provincial levels, from the eleven former administrations in the RSA, the TBVC states and the "self-governing" territories. Thirty-three national departments have been established, together with nine provincial administrations with their own provincial service commissions (Republic of SA, 1995b:99).

With the first stage of the rationalisation process nearing completion at the time of writing (October 1996), attention has shifted to the longer-term question of creating a leaner and more cost-effective service. One of the policy instruments created to drive and implement the transformation process, a twelve-member Presidential Review Commission (PRC), was established in March 1996. The PRC's terms of reference include carrying out a comprehensive review and audit of the structures, functions, composition and financing of civil service departments at both national and provincial levels (Republic of SA, 1995b:34). It is anticipated that the PRC will complete its work within twelve months, with a target date of September 1997. A detailed strategy and programme for civil service reform for the five- year period to 2001 is one of the expected outcomes of the Commission's work.

The breaking down or transfer of functions from the center to provincial or local governments, or to quasi-public institutions through the processes of decentralisation and deconcentration, became part of the reform debate in South Africa in the 1980s after the promulgation of the 1983 constitution. As part of the programme of constitutional reform, the second-tier provincial councils were abolished in 1986 and the four provincial administrations each became a civil service department, responsible for general affairs (Republic of SA, 1987a:12). The second-tier government was responsible for the existing general provincial functions as well as those functions to be devolved from central departments and other bodies. Although the government emphasised the devolution of political power as a policy priority, very little devolution actually took place, or as the example above illustrates, the result in certain cases was actually centralisation. By the early nineties the debate was taken over by the constitutional negotiation process. In the 1994 intern constitution substantial powers were assigned to the nine provinces and for the first time there seems to be a real potential for effective decentralisation and deconcentration to take place. According to the White Paper (Republic of SA, 1995b:76), one of the preconditions for the success of the transformation process will be the devolution and decentralisation of authority to departments and provinces. This is to enable them to act creatively in translating the broad goals of transformation and national policy guidelines into specific strategies that are capable of responding effectively to local needs and circumstances. Because of the ambiguity regarding the concurrent powers over which both central and provincial authorities have legislative competence, it is still unclear to what extent the notion of government closer to the people will materialise.

The mid-eighties also saw renewed emphasis on the policy options of moving public functions and services into private hands through privatisation and off-loading (Republic of SA, 1985:14). This was done in the South African civil service under the banner of a function evaluation programme with the overall stated aim of reducing or curtailing the number of functions performed by the central civil service. The aims and functions of government institutions were appraised in terms of set criteria and various options. Consideration was given to whether a specific function could be discontinued, curtailed, carried out less intensively, carried out by another institution, made self-sufficient, or privatised (Republic of SA, 1987a: 20-21). Its aims was to limit government activities to the essential functions and to ensure that they are affordable and carried out at acceptable levels (Republic of SA, 1989:32). In 1985 privatisation was accepted as a part of economic policy in South Africa for many of the same reasons that have made it a new economic creed almost worldwide, and in 1987 the governments position was formulated and spelled out in a White Paper. As a result of the Commission for Administration's privatisation investigations and feasibility studies, departments and administrations had, to a great extent, started contracting out activities in 1987 to the private sector or introduced compensatory tariffs (Republic of SA, 1988:34).

However, except for the contracting out of certain government services (e.g. building and maintenance of roads, toll roads) and the introduction of compensatory tariffs, the privatisation drive lost some momentum by the beginning of the 1990s and was eventually put on hold during the period of constitutional negotiations. During the latter part of 1990 the Cabinet accepted that the Commission for Administration should be primarily concerned with commercialisation, that is the creation of managerial or business units and promoting the practicing of business principles (Republic of SA, 1990:22). Of the 5 state institutions which were originally earmarked for privatisation, only Iscor (a steel company) was eventually sold while corporatisation policies, in which government retained ownership, were successfully adopted for others, e.g. the South African Transport Services was transformed into a public company Transnet, the Department of Post and Telecommunications into two public companies, Telkom and South African Post Office. The commercial part of the forestry branch of the Department of Water affairs and Forestry was transferred to the South African Forestry Company (Safcol) in 1992 (Republic of SA, 1992:9). After democratisation in 1994, the new government under pressure from the unions proceeded very cautiously with what is now being referred to as the "restructuring of state assets", and the partial sell-off of minority stakes in strategic institutions such as Telkom will probably materialize only in 1997 while some of the other smaller "non-strategic" enterprises (e.g. public resorts, airlines such as Sun Air) will probably be sold out of hand.

According to the White Paper (Republic of SA, 1995b:46) the new democratic government considers rightsizing as a key strategy to achieve its objectives of a reduced wage bill and a leaner but more effective civil service. Already by the beginning of the 1980s concern was expressed over the size and growth of the public sector. By 1980 the establishment of the civil service had increased by 30,4% since 1975 according to the Commission for Administration's Annual Report, (Republic of SA, 1981:7), the average growth of 6% per year appeared "unusually high". As instructed by cabinet, the Commission for Administration designed a programme in 1985 to bring about a saving on personnel expenditure by reducing the state's personnel expenditure account (reduction in service bonuses, abolition of 50% of existing vacancies) and increasing productivity (working half-an-hour per day longer) (Republic of SA, 1986:22-23). By 1987 the government introduced a personnel stand-still in an effort to curtail personnel expenditure (Republic of SA, 1988:19). It is the stated aim of the present government to reduce the size of the civil service from its present size of more than 1,2 million to under a million by the year 1998. The government's commitment and ability to achieve this goal, however, is already being questioned by sceptical commentators (Die Burger, 24 September 1996).

Budgetary and Financial Reforms

In the early 1970s the need for budgetary reform was recognized by the South African civil service and after an international investigation into PPBS systems in 1973, a local adaptation known as the budgeting by objective system was introduced in 1975 as part of a financial management system in central government departments (Thornhill, 1984:23). The first phase of budget reform was mainly concerned with the identification of goals, programmes and activities. However, according to Thornhill (1994:21) the goals as identified in the estimates indicate that most of these are vaguely formulated. They often merely describe the functions of the departments. In terms of the programme structure, Thornhill's investigation indicated that some of the programmes might have been identified merely to satisfy Treasury within really endeavoring to indicate the interim goals to be attained. Especially on central government level the advantages of the system had been accepted and it is indeed in operation in all government departments. However, it was acknowledged that to ensure the full benefits of the system the development of criteria to measure performance was essential. After 1994 the new government's efforts to redirect departmental expenditure to new priorities again put budgetary reform again on the agenda. According to the White Paper (Republic of SA, 1995b:94), as part of the move away from the incremental budgeting of the past, departments will be required to establish clear outputs and priorities, particularly in line with the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), and to redirect expenditure to meeting them. It is expected that the introduction from the 1996/97 financial year onwards of new multi-year budgets will also facilitate this process.

Procedural or Technical Reforms

The majority of current technical reforms on national agendas are closely related to the managerialist influence - they are intended to make public sector management systems look more like those of the private sector. Its manifestation in South Africa was prompted by the notion that government departments must be "run according to business principles". In the late seventies the Public Service Commission (Republic of SA, 1980b:3) invited recognized leaders from the private sector to consult with the Public Service Commission "on a more permanent basis". This trend lead to a renewed emphasis being placed on the notion of managerial autonomy (also known in South Africa as management "self sufficiency" and later still as "framework autonomy": The stated intention was the transfer of executive powers to the departments to the highest degree of managerial autonomy that can be reconciled with the efficient functioning of the civil service as a whole. In other words, within the framework of the policy laid down and the principles established, departments would enjoy the highest possible degree of managerial autonomy (Republic of SA, 1980b:5-6). Although delegation of some of the Public Service Commission (Republic of SA, 1973:2) powers in regard to certain appointments, promotions, transfers, special salary increments and the creation/abolition of certain posts took place, it generally failed to live up to the expectations of the departments. This is reiterated in the White Paper (Republic of SA, 1995b:20) which states that at the moment many committed and potentially innovative managers feel that they are hamstrung by a plethora of rules, regulations and legislation, and in particular by the way in which these are perceived to be controlled and operated by the Public Service Commission.

In 1990 the establishment of greater managerial autonomy had been approved by Cabinet and the Commission for Administration pursued the creation of frameworks within which departments can practise management autonomy (Republic of SA, 1990:4-5). However, it was decided that implementation would be done by way of an experimental approach and the Department of Correctional Services was chosen as a pilot department for the development of a pro forma management approach for the core public sector. The Department was divided into management units (cost centers, profit centers and service centers) and authority and responsibility were delegated to the levels were the information was available but within an applicable procedural and control framework (Brynard, 1992:182-190).

The personnel system was also modernised in the 1980s by the introduction of a system of occupational differentiation: this approach was intended to eliminate problems in recruiting and retaining personnel in the particular occupational categories (Republic of SA, 1982:19). The elimination of unnecessary paperwork and of superfluous rules and regulations was also the focus of some reform efforts: for example, one of the aims of the rationalisation programme of late seventies / early eighties was a review of all legislation with a view to scrapping or amending obsolete legislation and consolidating and simplifying the remaining measures (Republic of SA, 1980a: 4). In 1982 a special project concerning the promotion of efficiency and the elimination of red tape in government administration was launched (Republic of SA, 1984:42). A further programme that departments could use to raise productivity, namely the use of quality circles (its adapted form locally known as small group activities), was adapted in 1987 to be applied specifically in the Public Service (Republic of SA, 1988:34).

Relational Reforms

The primary reform in this group, namely the creation of a civil service "elite" who leave behind many of the traditional protections of the civil service to operate under the terms of a contract, was also implemented in South Africa in 1984 with the promulgation of a new Public Service Act, which stipulated that a head of a department shall occupy his office for a specified period, but not for longer than 5 years, but this can be extended for successive periods (Republic of SA, 1985:13). It is proposed in the White Paper (Republic of SA, 1995b:76) that the contracts of departmental and provincial Director-Generals be tied to the achievement of specific performance measures and targets, in relation to such issues as service delivery and representativeness.

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.