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  • Ivor Chipkin


This is an edited exerpt from 'Democracy, Politics and Administration: Defining State Capture in South Africa', Forthcoming in 2020 in Transformation: Critical Perspectives onSouthern Africa.

Seeing state capture as an event in democracy, and not simply as another moment of corruption, has requires theoretical development. That is, contemporary definitions of democracy, especially as they inform the literature on political transitions, reduce the phenomenon to the rules of political participation. Yet over the last ten years South Africa saw, not so much a rolling back of political rights as concerted attacks on the autonomy of state administrations. Without the conceptual tools to understand these attacks on the bureaucracy as attacks on democracy, the period from 2007 to 2017 has largely been construed in terms of corruption, criminality and patronage. This is a mistake when we recognise the concept and practice of democracy requires that we think of bureaucratic autonomy as a democratic virtue.

At the end of the nineteenth century, public administration scholars domesticated for democratic theory and practice the distinction between the political and the administrative. I have argued that this was a conceptual development as significant as the theory of the separation of powers. It helped solve an enduring difficulty for democratic government.

We have seen that democracies have a two-headed problem when it comes to government. Relative to monarchies, dictatorships and autocracies, they must go to great trouble to establish the popular will – this is also their greatest strength, for if successful democracies can build wide, stable and enduring consensus without resort to coercion. This process is often so challenging that democracies frequently neglect the second head of government, execution, such that democracy often comes at the expense of government. This is what has happened in South Africa since 1994.

In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, public administration found a solution to the second problem, execution. China, the Ottoman Empire and in Europe, Prussia of Frederick the Great had already cultivated, dedicated and professional public services by distinguishing between political and administrative office. Public administration scholars reconciled this distinction to democracy, initiating nothing less than a revolution. They transformed democracy from a type of political system to a type of government. Indeed, the category of administration emerged in its own right for the first time. I have called this development in democracy as one from fused government to autonomous government.

A theory of the democratic political system must be accompanied by a theory of democratic government. The reason is practical. If democracy is to be more than a talk-shop it must have institutions and mechanisms to give practical effect to the policies and promises of political parties. To the extent that it does not, then democracy remains, at best, a talk-shop; always at risk to authoritarian tendencies claiming to be able to get things done.

This is how I propose that we understand the phenomenon of state capture in South Africa. Like US democrats of the Jacksonian era, the African National Congress under Jacob Zuma was beholden to a conception of majority rule that made it hostile to existing, autonomous administrations. In this sense, the protagonists of ‘state capture’ in South Africa did not so much capture the state as block the process of rationalisation. In so doing they foreclosed on the emergence government proper and blocked an evolution towards democratic administration or better, administrative democracy.

In light of the ongoing State Capture Commission and the opportunity that it affords South Africa to identify and reform those aspects of the current system, let us ask: what would it take for South Africa to complete the transition to democratic government? In other words, how can the separation between the political and the administrative be instantiated practically? As a start, we might consider the following:

· The distinction between the political and the administrative is weakly present in the Constitution, though recent Constitutional jurisprudence around the notion of a ‘fit and proper’ appointment has gone some way to strengthen it. There is probably no need for Constitutional amendments, therefore.

· Decide on where to draw a line between political and administrative appointments and define distinct recruitment paths for each. For, example, the roles of advisors to the Minister are clearly political roles and should be appointed by the Minister in question or by the political party concerned according to its own process.

· The roles of Director-General and that of Deputy-Director-General are ones at the interface between the political executive and the departmental administration. They need to have the trust of the politicians that they serve, whilst also having the faith of the department. It is appropriate that their appointment route is a mixed one. Below Director-General and Deputy-Director General appointments could be administrative.

· Administrative appointments would require a universal entrance exam into the public service, as well as ongoing professional development through a properly resourced and independent National School of Government.

· The role of vetting appointments in the public service should be returned to the Public Service Commission or a constitutionally independent body established for this purpose. The PSC would oversee all appointments and promotions to determine if candidates were suitably qualified and experienced.

· For mixed appointments, the relevant department together with the Public Service Commission could shortlist candidates from which the Minister could choose.

· Procurement Officers are always administrative appointments and given the scale of outsourcing in South Africa, the integrity of the role needs to be especially safeguarded. This could be done by professionalising their roles by, in addition, requiring them to register with a suitably established, independent, statutory body that could withdraw its accreditation in cases of misconduct[i].

These are some of the building blocks for establishing bureaucratic autonomy as a democratic virtue.

[i] Thank-you to Willie Hofmeyr for this idea, which I think is a very good one.

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