IF you have ever watched what is arguably the BBC’s best-ever situation comedy, ‘Yes Minister’, you will recall the various facial expressions of Sir Humphrey Appleby (played by the Anglo-South African actor Nigel Hawthorne), the archetypal civil servant. They range from incredulity to suave certainty and apoplectic outrage to any challenge to the idea that Britain is run by its civil service. In Sir Humphrey’s eyes, politicians are inconsequential birds of passage alighting occasionally on the affairs of a permanent ruling class.

Clearly this is unacceptable in a modern democracy, but the exaggerated portrayal of popular legend makes good comedy. Apparently Margaret Thatcher loved it, just as Piet Koornhof and other members of the National Party government were reputed to enjoy Evita Bezuidenhout. But the role and even character of Sir Humphrey, for all his insufferable pomposity, carries an important message: the vital need for any nation to nurture independent, professional institutions not least its public service. It is an area in which South Africa is found sadly wanting; and the consequences are increasingly worrying.

Put simply, too many people have been appointed to key positions on the basis of party political obligations and blind loyalty rather than ability and commitment, existing or potential. The cause of this is a tendency to confuse the separate natures, roles and responsibilities of party and state. This was perhaps to be expected in post-liberation society in which an exiled, often neurotic movement heavily influenced by African traditionalism laced with East European, Soviet-style authoritarianism became the dominant political party. Out of this unfortunate mix has emerged a culture of job entitlement.

This culture shows itself in different ways, but three of the most obvious consequences can be termed plunder, influence peddling using state resources, and job reservation. The first is well illustrated by cases of high-level corruption, and the arms deal has provided some textbook-quality quotations and opinions. Schabir Shaik sought to justify enormous self-enrichment, of which he has recently been relieved by the assets forfeiture process, on the grounds that he was a central figure in the struggle. In his blustering opinion, personal political history elevated him above the demands of good governance in a modern democratic society; and those who oppose his view are reactionaries and racists. From behaviour to date we shall no doubt hear more of this as the Zuma corruption trial unfolds and various arguments are put forward to justify insertion of powerful, well-connected fingers into the national till.

In similar fashion certain state institutions are regarded not as national assets guarding the interests of all South Africans, but as a resource base to exert influence in party political matters. The presidential succession battle is clearly being waged with assistance from organisations that should be immune from party political concerns. Irregular surveillance and subsequent suspensions at the National Intelligence Service suggest that it is busy with ANC politics rather than pursuing those who pose a real danger to the national interest, a distinction that many in government seem totally incapable of understanding.

For most citizens their closest and most important encounter with government occurs locally; for instance over the provision of housing, water and electricity, sewerage and refuse removal, and roads and street lighting. Incompetence and indifference by persons appointed to managerial posts in local government against criteria other than ability have led to a widespread lack of service delivery. The number of once politically acceptable appointees who have been suspended on plump salaries for months on end to relax at home while their incompetence and corrupt behaviour is laboriously investigated is worrying in the extreme.

Underlying the obvious political advantages of muddling party and state is a lack of respect. Professional commitment and people dedicated to the jobs for which they are paid are disparaged and under-valued. One problem is that no-one has yet come up with a convincing definition of the term ‘transformation’. Whatever its noble intentions, in practice it often turns out to be a simple purge based on physical appearance, occasionally tinged with a satisfying dose of political victimisation especially where that trendy term of abuse, liberal, can be applied. Appointments made simply on the basis of deference to party politics lead commonly to the unanswered communication, to unfinished projects and unspent budgets, and all too often to corruption. Conversely and tragically many South Africans with the ability and commitment to deliver are now contributing to other societies that value them for their ability as worthwhile employees.

We have, of course, seen all this before. Corrupt use of the institutions that should belong to everyone was a particular characteristic of the tragic years of apartheid: the intertwining of state and party in the interests of a specific group is nothing new to South Africa. Ministers were given oil shares, government contracts were consistently awarded to the same firms, the police were used as the shock troops of a particular political ideology, and institutions such as the railway and post office were used to provide and protect jobs for white government supporters.

The outcomes were many and disastrous: one was undoubtedly mediocrity and national under-performance. And this is the way it will remain until the inherent worth of individuals and their objective capacity to contribute is recognised as paramount.

This article was first published in The Witness on 14 February 2006 and entitled ‘When party and state are muddled’.