South Africa’s Universities Aren’t Training Future Civil Servants for What the Country Needs

Many analysts blame state capture – the corruption of the management of public affairs – for the weakening of state capacity in South Africa. A judicial commission of inquiry into the problem laid it bare.

They say the COVID pandemic worsened the situation as public resources had to be redirected from developmental commitments to address the emergency.

The claim has merit. But it ignores the role played by a public administration education that is not fit for purpose. The universities responsible for producing the human capital needed for building state capacity must shoulder much of the blame.

Our experience in public administration in academia and government spans decades. We have wrestled with the question of why, after various policy and administrative reforms in post-colonial Africa, state capability continues to be a challenge for many countries.

In our view the biggest problem facing South Africa is that the training of current and future civil servants is not delivering what the country needs. That’s because the training:

  • lacks the interdisciplinary approach needed to meet the country’s complex challenges
  • fails to grasp that technology will play a far greater role in the future
  • remains trapped in colonial theorisations.

We say this taking our cue from business administration education.

Self reflection

After the 2008 global financial meltdown, British journalist Philip Delves Broughton published an article in The Times, arguing that some Harvard-trained MBA graduates had played a leading role in creating the crisis.

The dean of the Harvard Business School subsequently called for “great introspection”. Harvard’s courage in dealing with the question of its business education is an inspiring lesson on how to confront the flaws of teaching for other fields.

Read more: South Africa has a plan to make its public service professional. It’s time to act on it

Likewise, almost 15 years later, the South African Association of Public Administration and Management (SAAPAM) raised the issue of public administration education at its recent 22nd Annual Conference. It asked: what do the schools and departments of public administration in South Africa teach?

This question is important because the quality of available talent determines what the state is capable of.

Worrying trends in the teaching of public administration

If public administration education is designed and delivered poorly, it sets a course for the systematic destruction of state capability. In many ways, this is what’s happening in South Africa.

Our analyses indicate that much of what is taught in public administration is not what the country needs to become a capable and developmental state. The discipline is tangled up in its own “self-interpretive closet“. This is despite the trend towards interdisciplinarity, where ideas and methods from different fields of study enrich each other to make sense of societal complexities and find solutions.

Public administration education does not appreciate the imperative of socioeconomic transformation for social and ecological justice, or the role of technology. Its remains trapped in colonial teaching about systems and processes.

The “grand narrative fiction“, to borrow New Mexico State University professor David Boje’s phrase, that shaped curriculum development is that government should be run like a business. This is contrary to the constitutional principle that public administration must have a developmental orientation.

In the 1980s, “New Public Management” become a staple diet pushed down the throats of students of public administration. It emphasised the economic value of efficiency and maximisation of output with minimum input costs. The citizens are customers.

The falsehood that government is like a business opened the way to governance by consultants. This, despite the notoriety of “corporate consigliere[s]” deluding managers with

management gibberish and glossy charts while gorging on fat fees.

They hollowed out the capacity of the state. All this occurred because of the void in the teaching of public administration.

But what must be done

The teaching of public administration must respond innovatively to the task of building a capable and developmental state. The way to do this may lie in forging strategic partnerships between academia, professional associations and government. It must aim to improve the talent pipeline for the state.

Universities are the citadel of originating ideas. Professional associations exist to inculcate a culture of professionalism that many lament is lacking in the management of state affairs.

Any effort towards human capital formation needs to start by creating an opportunity for these partnerships to evolve. Universities must shake off their autonomous posture and “ivory towering”.

Read more: To fix South Africa’s dysfunctional state, ditch its colonial heritage

Government must outgrow its suspicion of universities and embrace evidence-driven policy practices.

Professional associations in the public sector should understand that they exist to pursue the public interest, not to create an elite class in the bureaucracy.

For far too long, collaborative efforts in the teaching of public administration have been a cursory pursuit bereft of strategic intent. This needs to change. They must be institutionalised.

The partnership we are calling for is not only for training interventions. It is also for re-imagining public administration education to be relevant to what the country needs. This must be grounded in the African philosophy of humanism, if the “people first” approach to statecraft is to have meaning. In other words, students of public administration need to be steeped in the orientation that managing state affairs is about giving democracy a human face.

Theories of the state and citizenship, and the principles of democracy, need to underpin the teaching of public administration too. Students must learn how to provide the public good in a way that creates a public value to satisfy public interests. And public administration as practical science must respond to the impediments to human progress in the 21st century: terrorism, global warming, an increasingly unstable global economy, and pandemics.

Read more: South Africa since 1994: a mixed bag of presidents and patchy institution-building

Another key aspect for consideration relates to the fourth industrial revolution technologies in public administration curricula.

Public administration needs to go beyond studying systems and processes, and the neoliberal logic associated with New Public Management. It must embrace interdisciplinarity.

Mashupye Herbert Maserumule, Professor of Public Affairs, Tshwane University of Technology

Busani Ngcaweni, Visiting Adjunct Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand

Robert Nkuna, Professor of Practice, North-West University

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