A couple of sentences in the recently released National Development Plan 2030 are worth pondering.
A plan, the document reads, is only as credible as its delivery mechanism is viable. There is a real risk, it continues, that South Africa’s developmental agenda could fail because the State is incapable of implementing it.
It could be argued that many of the solutions to this country’s most serious problems – from the less than acceptable, often dismal, performance of our public education and health institutions through to heavy-handed policing and ineffective, misdirected and abused public spending – lie in fundamentally upgrading the State’s human and technical capabilities.
Good legislation and policy, which South Africa has in abundance, becomes little more than “aspirational waffle” (to again steal a phrase from the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams) in the absence of a dedicated, motivated and professional public service.
Transitioning from where we are currently to a new public- service reality is, therefore, possibly the most important project of contemporary South Africa.
If we fail, there is a risk that this country could too. But if we make solid, incremental improvements, there will be proportional, possibly even disproportional, progress in dealing with this country’s most pressing challenges.
Sadly, the current focus of many of those in power does not seem to be on building what the National Development Plan describes as a “capable State”, which needs to be built “brick by brick, institution by institution”.
Instead, much attention is being given to extending the reach of an already weak and incapable State into new areas. By doing so, there is a risk that government could contaminate areas that are functioning (albeit not optimally from a social and develop-mental perspective) to the point where they too begin to deteriorate.
That said, the current myopic fixation that many in civil society express on the issue of cadre deployment is just as unhelpful.
True, the dishing out of political patronage is a serious problem and one that has undermined good governance and implementation in a number of critical areas, particularly at the level of municipal government, where the service delivery tyre is meant to hit the road.
However, in a country that has deep transformational imperatives, such a fixation can become distracting, divisive and even debilitating, as it leads to retreat into little boxes of prejudice, rather than out-of-the-box thinking.
To return the focus of the authorities from an agenda of potentially destructive overreaching to one centred on building capable institutional capacity requires a multidimensional approach.
Only then will fresh thinking emerge on training, recruitment and retention and on creating a civil service that truly has an ethos of service, held in check by systems that demand accountability and transparency.