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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.


The feasibility of any attempt to try to categorise South Africa's civil service system could be seriously doubted at this particular point in time, three years after the change of the regime. The country is currently experiencing a dramatic paradigm shift from the apartheid system to a more open and democratic political culture. This value change is still open-ended and no definitive assessment of its scope, contents and consequences is yet possible. For this reason many of the properties utilised in this categorisation attempt will still closely resemble the characteristics of the civil service system under the previous regime whereas the assessment of the impact of the new democratic regime is largely based on observations of emerging tendencies and, unavoidably, some speculation. This attempt to analyse the South African civil service system in terms of both Heady and Morgan's configurations (Heady, 1996:207-226; Morgan, 1996: 227-243) leads to different but interesting results.

Heady's Configurations

Heady's analysis to identify his four common configurations of civil service systems utilises qualitative variations in each of five dimensions, namely (1) relations of civil service to political regime; (2) socio-economic context of the civil service system; (3) focus for personnel management functions in civil service systems; (4) qualification requirements for civil service membership; and (5) sense of mission of civil servants. In terms of the first dimension, relations of civil service to political regime, the South African civil service system could be classified as single-party responsive: it could be argued that the National Party as a dominant one-party regime was replaced after 45 years in power by another dominant one-party regime when the African National Congress (ANC) came to power in 1994 after winning the first democratic election with nearly 65% of the popular vote. The National Party used or allowed some 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.g. 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 regime change currently still in progress in South Africa has brought new political elites into an entrenched position of political power. Pragmatists (or cynics) will argue that there is no reason to believe that these new political elites, although they may have a totally different outlook on political life than was the position with the apartheid elites, will have a different conception of the civil service and will look at it in a different light than their predecessors did. Because of the dominant position of the ANC, another regime change is unlikely in the next 10 years. A possible realignment of political parties is, however, not unthinkable in the long term, and the possibility that a majority-party responsive civil service system could eventually develop can therefore not be ruled out.

As far as the second dimension, the socio-economic context of the civil service system, is concerned, the South African civil service system could be placed in the corporatist (and centrally planned) category. The implementation of apartheid necessitated a centralised state with expertise vested in the hands of the higher technocrats. This was especially visible during the "reform" phase under State President PW Botha in the 1980s. Although corporatism was already evident under the previous regime, the present regime follows a clear strategy where representation is channelled to specially created structures (commonly known as forums) and where the state becomes the central mediating and deciding role-player among competing groups. Examples of such newly established structures are the National Economic, Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC), which has brought government, business and labour together at a national level, and the creation of Police Community Forums at the local level. The fact that prominent church leaders have also been drawn into the system, e.g. the Reverend Frank Chikane as an adviser to Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the Chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and Bishop Stanley Magoba, newly elected leader of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), into the Government of National Unity (GNU), could be an interesting manifestation of the corporatisation strategy of the government to involve powerful religious groups.

The new regime is not overtly different from its predecessor in terms of its centralising tendencies. The necessity for central direction is argued from two points, namely the need for a total transformation of the civil service system at normative, structural and functional levels into a more appropriate and relevant organisation, and the need for society as a whole to rid itself of its apartheid past. A counterbalance, however, is the fact that the powers of the new provinces are entrenched in the new 1996 Constitution (which came into operation in February 1997) and it could be expected, inter alia because of competition between the provinces, that the pressure for more and effective decentralisation could build up over time. As long as the provinces have no autonomous competence to raise taxes and are dependent for their share of the fiscus on the Financial and Fiscal Commission (FFC) at national level, the direction of development and changes in the socio-economic context in which the civil service systems function will remain unclear.

The third dimension considers the focus for personnel management as an indicator of the structural character of the civil service system. A shift has ostensibly occurred here or is in the process of occurring. In the previous regime a central independent agency, the Public Service Commission, was responsible for exercising the personnel management function. Under the new regime there is an indication that the intention seems to be to decentralise the personnel function on a ministry-by-ministry basis, subject to statutory requirements and national norms monitored and set by the Ministry for Public Service and Administration at national level. Presently the implementation of this change in personnel management seems to be in a state of flux, probably due to bureaucratic inertia and the prevailing organisational culture. The exact realisation of this option of decentralising the personnel management function in practice remains to be carried out.

The qualification requirements for civil service membership are the subject of the fourth dimension. The behaviour of top civil servants during National Party regime was overwhelmingly determined by the party political line and as such it could be argued that party loyalty was the touchstone of eligibility for membership of the civil service at that level. Before 1980 contract officials acceptable to the government were recruited exclusively from the ranks of former permanent officials. From 1980, under the Botha regime, a new style of legitimate, specialist, technocratic appointment from outside the traditional civil service, occurred in the management cadre (the rank of director and upwards) of the civil service. At senior and middle management level, however, professional and technical expertise was highly valued and strongly emphasised and to a great extent the professional performance category characterised the civil service system at this level.

The 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. Since 1994 professional capability has therefore again been supplemented by political legitimacy as an important criterion for the appointment of new top public officials. It would seem that party loyalty will also characterise the civil service system under the new regime at this level and that professional and technical expertise will to some extent be maintained at the other levels. The fact that future incumbents of civil service posts at these levels will increasingly have to mirror more accurately the population composition of the country may lead to a change from the previous emphasis on specialist professionalism to greater stress being placed on generalist professionalism.

The difficulty in categorising the South African civil service system in terms of the final dimension, that is the sense of mission, is probably an accurate reflection of the current flux and changing value systems within the service. It can be argued that compliance is a characteristic of both the old and new political regimes at the top levels, whereas co-operation is especially evident in the two potentially contradictory roles the existing bureaucrats play. On the one hand they have an 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. The fundamental policy changes which are occurring literally from day to day in South Africa are evidently moving in the direction of a civil service which is more responsive to general public needs and demands than has been the case in the past. It can therefore be argued that the transformation of the South African civil service will require that policy responsiveness becomes the new common widely shared value system of the majority of both old and new bureaucrats.

A future civil service displaying at least some characteristics of constitutional responsiveness is not too far-fetched. It should be noted in this regard that 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 others.

Except for the sense of mission variable discussed above, the qualitative assessment of the South African civil service system in terms of the other variables of Heady's configuration shows remarkable internal consistency and fits the party controlled configuration. This means put South Africa has a similar configuration to countries such as Egypt, Mexico and Malaysia. The emerging trends, although speculative at this early stage, could point to a possible future development pattern in the direction of a majority-party responsive system. The influence of the international community in this regard should not be underestimated. The diplomatic and economic pressure applied on the previous regime, the support of the negotiation process and the re-incorporation of South Africa after democratisation into the world economic system are all important in this regard. It could, however, be argued that there is a tension between the apparent ideals expressed in the new 1996 Constitution, with its Western liberal character, and the reality of South Africa as a developing country in an African context. The influence of the dominant international players and the full impact of the transition on the character of the civil service system will only become clear in the 21st century.

Morgan's Configurations

The present changes in the South African civil service system make the application of Morgan's configuration for developing countries potentially valuable in illuminating the direction of change. These changes could be defined in terms of two classes of institutional reforms namely, firstly those relating to the constitutional order, and secondly those focused on improvement of performance. Morgan uses this distinction between the normative context of governance and the positivist roots of management to develop a general framework for comparison.

The state or regime is firstly analysed by differentiating two further variables: firstly the level of institutionalisation of the nation-state and secondly, the aggregated public attitude towards the state. Plotting the South African civil service system in Figure 1 on the institutional, inchoate, anti-state and pro-state continua places it in a position somewhere near Mexico in the institutional & prostate in quadrant III.

Figure 1

South Africa's position on the institutional state - inchoate state continuum is warranted by inter alia an independent central bank, an institutionalised labour relations system, a functioning criminal justice system, the fact that corruption does not seem to be at an excessively high level, independent institutions or offices such as the constitutional court, public protector, auditor general, and extensively developed structures of civil society. It is be expected that the level of institutionalisation will further be strengthened by the adoption and implementation of the new 1996 Constitution.

In terms of the anti-state - pro-state continuum, the public attitude towards the state can be placed on the prostate side of the continuum. The manifestation of this is the role of the state to ensure a better life for all through intervention - the new regime's Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) is a case in point. A good deal of trust is put in the ability of government corporations to fulfil promises on the delivery of goods and services. Most state enterprises, it would seem, will not be fully privatised - only minority stakes in the institutions which play an important role in socio-economic development (i.e. electrification and telecommunications) will, for example, be sold to strategic equity partners. The state is in many instances seen as the only possible service provider due to lack of private sector infrastructure in for example, the rural areas. Even the funding for non-governmental organisations is channelled through the state.

As can be expected, public opinion about the civil service also mirrors the past and present cleavages and divisions in South African society. The previously disadvantaged citizens can be expected to have a negative perception about the legitimacy and efficiency 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 can be argued that perceptions about the legitimacy of the civil service in the previously disadvantaged communities have recently improved. This improvement is gradual and probably the greatest amongst the black middle class, which are benefiting most from general affirmative action policies and personnel practices. At the same time there is probably a decrease in legitimacy and especially in perceptions of efficiency on the side of the white middle class, which is experiencing the pressures of the loss of their previously privileged positions.

Moving to the parameters which more directly characterise the civil service system, the tension between process and outcomes as one continuum and the degree of professionalism and the degree of political responsiveness as the other, serves as the framework for analysis. An assessment on both continua puts the South African civil service system in quadrant II, which is closer to the process & political responsiveness poles (Figure 2).

Figure 2

It would seem that a shift is occurring from an emphasis on outcomes under the previous regime (admittedly the civil service system delivered mainly for one group) to the present situation where participant consultation is highly valued, sometimes at the expense of outcomes. In terms of the tension between the values of competence and selective representation, the South African civil service system leans toward the political responsiveness pole of the continuum. The apartheid civil service was seen by critics of that regime as a powerful instrument in the enforcement of apartheid and was from this perspective highly politicised. The importance of political legitimacy and a more representative and responsive civil service together with the fundamental changes in policies will, however, also for the foreseeable future ensure the politicisation of the top cadre of the civil service under the first post-apartheid regime. Although professional and technical expertise is still highly valued at senior and middle management levels, the civil service has experienced a loss of expertise due to feelings of disgruntlement among the old bureaucrats and the availability of voluntary severance packages to them.

From these dimensions Morgan identifies four macro-institutional environments or fields, namely pragmatic, patrimonial, positivist and absolutist. South Africa does not fit into this framework and is perhaps one of the cases which could fit into a separate field (quadrant V)? It is somewhat risky to identify the direction of movement of the civil service system. 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. A development which could be beneficial for South Africa, given its status of a developing country, would be a transition from the absolutist to the positivist field. This is however unlikely in the foreseeable future, given the particular historical past of and the current flux in the country.

The somewhat confusing picture with signals depicting different 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 components, 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.

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.