09 Apr 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
Perhaps Trevor Manuel will hand over the problem of cadre deployment to his successor, writes Tony Leon
THERE’s the apocryphal tale of the departing president handing three envelopes to his successor. "When the going gets rough," he advises the new head of state, "open an envelope".
As an early crisis hits the new president, he opens the first envelope. In the note inside it, his predecessor has written: "Blame the global financial crisis." This buys some time for the new man, until a new problem confronts him. So he opens the second envelope. The note in it from the former president advises: "Blame me."
This also works for a good while, until yet another crunch point threatens his administration. With rising panic he reaches into his desk for the third envelope prepared for him by his predecessor. The note inside it says: "Prepare three envelopes."
In his interview last month with the Financial Times, President Jacob Zuma, metaphorically, opened the first and second envelopes when he blamed both the eurozone crisis and the legacy of apartheid for the flat-lining of the South African economy and our coruscating failure to create economic growth and employment.
I very much doubt whether Zuma, the arch-survivor, is preparing three envelopes for an early succession. But last week, Planning Minister Trevor Manuel actually threw away the second envelope entirely with his headline-grabbing speech to a government leadership summit. He now famously said: "Nineteen years into democracy, our government has run out of excuses. We cannot continue to blame apartheid for our failings as a state."
Such brutal candour is both unusual and refreshing, leading to suggestions that Manuel is preparing to leave the government at a not too distant date. But as someone who created both an enclave of excellence in his many years at the Treasury and who has bequeathed the country an impressive road map into a sustainable and inclusive future in the form of the National Development Plan (admission: I have read only parts of it), he knows whereof he speaks.
But for all the attention Manuel’s speech achieved, it is actually some of the detail in his groundbreaking speech that points to the Sisyphean task of building a "developmental state" without the bricks and mortar, in the form of an engaged and professional public service, to do so.
Having just emerged from three years "in the belly of the beast" as a chief director and ambassador in the public service, I readily identified with many of Manuel’s observations about a "risk-averse public service that thrives on passing the buck". I recount some of the lurid tales of missed opportunities and hair-raising bureaucratic obstacles placed in the path of the public servants who do actually arrive at work on time and display a conscientious application to their tasks in my new book, The Accidental Ambassador.
One of the stories I don’t recount in it is worth retelling here, in the light of Manuel’s speech. Last year, when we were planning to use the Freedom Day celebrations in Argentina to showcase a gifted emerging South African artist to art-loving Argentinians, I obtained the immediate buy-in of the director-general of arts and culture for the project. He promptly sent us the details of the programme and we selected an artist from the approved list provided by his department. However, the problems and obstacles emerged the moment the matter left the desk of the director-general and went down into the lower reaches of his department. In short, and it is a very long and sad tale, an excellent young artist, John Vusi Mfupi, was eventually flown from Johannesburg to Buenos Aires but, due to a combination of incompetence and lethargy, he arrived without his excellent portfolio of works to display to the audience of more than 200 high-end locals we had gathered together for our Freedom Day celebration. The artworks had been erroneously sent to Amsterdam, not Argentina and arrived four days after the event.
The net result of this botch-up is that I now have a large Mfupi collage on display in my lounge in Cape Town, as I both appreciate his art and felt so bad about his missed opportunity that I purchased his work for my own account.
South Africa, of course, has more pressing issues than showcasing its artistic talent. But the same malady in the middle and lower reaches of arts and culture is evident in health, education and the police, to name just three front-line services where the state has the essential role in providing public goods.
Manuel attributes the problem to high policy turnover, high turnover of staff and a critical shortage of technical skills.
He’s right in his diagnosis, except on one essential point. He says, "SA has not suffered … from having incorrect policies". Actually, one of the roots of the problem he so fearlessly dissects is just such a policy. It’s called "cadre deployment". Perhaps in handing over to a successor in due course, he will place that in an envelope.
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