There is rarely spontaneous public applause for the efficiency and responsiveness of state entities. As well as almost limitless access to taxpayer funds, the impunity that assured employment affords, makes for public servant arrogance, sloth and waste.

Combine these corrosive institutional traits with an African National Congress government that believes it has a God-ordained mandate to rule until the Rapture, and any pretence at accountability flies out the window. Stir in nepotism, cadre deployment, and a president whose most important criterion for ministerial appointments is not competence but slavish personal loyalty, and one has dysfunctional South Africa today.

SA’s state apparatus is in the throes of collapse. Institutional failure is now so glaring that even hardline ANC supporters have become perturbed.

The most cited example is Eskom, since the incessant load shedding touches almost every person’s life. And it is one of those wonderful SA ironies that those who most stridently take umbrage, in the form of angry street protests, are those who don’t, in any case, pay for their electricity.

The problem is more than a matter of inconvenience. Hundreds of thousands of vulnerable, casual and self-employed subsistence workers are grievously out of pocket when blackouts curtail their earnings.

It’s not only Eskom. One can cite an array of state entities, of which the SA Post Office (Sapo), too, is in extremis.

It now takes approximately six times as long for a letter to travel between Britain and SA as it did in the fortnightly mail boat run that ended in the 1960s. Recently local movement of mail ground to a halt for days because Sapo simply didn’t have the cash to fuel its vehicles.

But state entities are audited and at least theoretically accountable. More insidious – for it is truly a law unto itself – is what is laughably called the public “service”.

Any encounter with state bureaucracy, be it at local, provincial or national level, is characterised by mind-numbing time-wasting as poor systems combine to toxic effect with public employees who often seem to invent regulations on the fly. These niggles cumulatively cost the economy billions in lost production and opportunity cost.

Here’s a simple illustration of this cascade effect. Someone wants to register for a postgraduate course at the University of SA. Unisa won’t register her without a matric certificate, although she can produce both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from SA institutions.

The KwaZulu-Natal education department says it will take six weeks to print a duplicate matric certificate. After six weeks, maybe four dozen phone calls, and hours spent queuing, the duplicate certificate is still not available, which means she misses that year’s Unisa registration cut off.

But all is not lost, surely? Remember Batho Pele? People First? The government charter for service delivery, introduced during Nelson Mandela’s presidency and still limping along, albeit mortally wounded.

KZN Education publishes the direct phone number of someone dedicated to dealing with public complaints. This taxpayer employee’s method of doing so is to “lose” phone calls by simply picking up and putting down the receiver when a call comes through. Every time.

After an eight-month gestation – I’m sure that SA Broadcasting Corporation COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng could have scribbled one up for her in a few hours – an SMS arrives. The duplicate matric certificate is available for collection but now irrelevant, the aspirant post-graduate student having moved on to greener pastures abroad.

This is not a remarkable example. Anyone needing a licence, a permit, an identity document, or any of the bureaucratic permissions that have become lekker revenue generators, especially for cash-strapped local authorities, has a similar tale of woe.

It is obvious that among the few tasks that the present administration is able to perform with any degree of efficiency is the dispensing of social grants, which is admirable but a matter of political life or death for the ANC. Oh! And patronage, which is despicable but predictable.

While other governments strive to minimise or streamline processes, ours seeks to complicate them. The result of all this incompetence, inefficiency and sloth is that we are left wading through bureaucratic treacle. Energy is wasted, productive momentum is lost and competitive advantage thrown away.

The new visa regulations that have slashed tourist arrivals and are now causing belated government concern are not aberration, merely symptomatic of an economy that is in the constrictor-like death grip of a stifling officialdom.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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