Prof Adam Habib on service delivery and affirmative action

Date: Oct 11, 2011 | News


​​Corporate sponsored public ‘discussions’ can be painful.

Published on : Money Web, 2011-10-10

Almost invariably, these events are leveraged as self-serving marketing platforms not only by the businesses and sponsors which host them, but by the big-name speakers which command the stage.

As a result the rhetoric deployed tends to ooze grandiose, vacant cliché.

Rapidly, a forum ostensibly held for the purpose of communicating ideas, developing insight and finding solutions to real and pressing issues can degenerate into a very polite name-chucking intellectual mud fight.

A lot gets said, little is learnt.

And, the free bar becomes solace for your despondent correspondent. These words, then, threatened to be inspirational: “Allow me to speak honestly … So often we get caught up in the diplomatic niceties whilst we forget to speak the truth”.

This was Prof Adam Habib, deputy vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, taking the stage in front of a room full of suited accounts in a hall provided by bankers, with a promise to be frank.

Speaking at the Association for the Advancement of Black Accountant’s (ABASA) leadership dialogue hosted by Nedbank, Habib would talk without restraint on affirmative action, service delivery and business’s culpability in government’s corruption. Fresh air.

“The service delivery crisis,” commanded the deputy vice chancellor in a booming, oscillating tone which seemed almost a paradox emanating as it did from his small, inconspicuous frame, “if we don’t address this issue, we are in serious trouble”.

And the jovial professor, who would easily fit in on a lawn at Woodstock with his flowing, silver streaked mane and easy-going yet provocative countenance, owned that hall as he wove his complex, insightful, disturbing narrative.

His was a tale of a governmental inefficiency that clogs the redistribution mechanism, keeping much needed resource from the mouths of the poorest.

A week later, at his office, Prof Habib outlined in more detail his service delivery philosophy.

Habib views the crisis as stemming from four interrelated issues: a chronic skills shortage, a lack of resources, systemic corruption and ill conceived evaluation matrices.

Necessarily, these issues come to play against the contextual backdrop of transformation.

But we can’t continue blame the past for our present malady, says Habib.

“Reform is absolutely necessary, but we need to do it in a way that is constructive.”

The delivery disease is a result of a failed healing mechanism. And its symptoms are most vivid at the level of human capitol.

The skills shortage within government, especially at the municipal level, is dire.

The issue is partly a result of a nationwide lack of skills, but the problem has been greatly exacerbated by government’s recruitment practices, according to Habib.

The affirmative action legislation holds that preference should be granted to previously disadvantaged groups when selecting candidates for a post. However, where a suitably qualified, previously disadvantaged candidate cannot be found “you appoint someone else”.

That is the law. But this is, apparently, not the practice.

The result is that “you have people employed as the financial director of provincial departments who have never seen a balance sheet in their lives.

“How did this happen?”

One, less controversial, issue is that the bonuses of managers and HR practitioners within government departments have been linked to the racial representativeness of their departments, says Habib.

Effectively government managers have been incentivised not to employ white staff, even where they are desperately in need of the skill.

To illustrate the practice Habib points to the situation where, not long ago, the department of home affairs had 40% of its positions unfilled. To employ white staff would be to dilute the equality ratios of the office at the cost of managers in the department’s bonuses.

He adds that to fail to fill positions then, or to fill them with unqualified staff, makes sense to state managers.

“Because you are focused on your bonus, you make crazy decisions … It’s a crazy, crazy performance system.”

And while skilled white staff are not being appointed to government posts, those that had held positions with the state prior to democracy have largely been and are continuing to be removed from office.

The result is a loss of institutional knowledge, says Habib.

With little experience within government departments there is little capacity to pass on knowledge, to develop new skill, thus perpetuating the crises.

Then there’s “cadre deployment”.

Here, individuals are posted to state positions based on their affiliation with other politicians. It’s a practice that “is rife across the system”.

It’s not only director generals that are being deployed – it is staff at all levels of government departments, says Habib. “Not only do you have cadre deployment, you have factional deployment” as ANC factions replace and move staff en mass as they jostle for internal power.

As a consequence there is little permanency in government posts even amongst black staff. Again, this weakens the state’s ability to establish a skills memory.

Achieving racial representativeness is imperative, says Habib, but you have to do it in a way that allows whites to feel that they have a part to play in the system. “You have to do it with pragmatism, you don’t become religious about it, you don’t become ideological”.​​

Adam Habib

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