Planning Minister Trevor Manuel at the 2013 Government Leadership Summit in Pretoria on Wednesday. Picture: GCIS
Planning Minister Trevor Manuel at the 2013 Government Leadership Summit in Pretoria on Wednesday. Picture: GCIS

THE government has "run out of excuses" and must stop blaming apartheid for service delivery failures, Planning Minister Trevor Manuel said on Wednesday, as senior leaders met to chart a new path for South Africa’s ailing public service.

Mr Manuel also moved to clarify the thorny area of "cadre deployment" in the public service, which is widely seen as a major cause of delivery failure.

Speaking at the 2013 Government Leadership Summit in Pretoria, Mr Manuel said: "We cannot plead ignorance or experience. For almost two decades, the public has been patient in the face of mediocre services. The time for ruthless focus on implementation has come."

At a media briefing after his speech, Mr Manuel said the African National Congress (ANC) has served four terms, which come with "responsibilities".

"There is no longer the Botha regime looking over our shoulder, we are responsible ourselves."

Mr Manuel referred to the "blurring of lines of accountability" and called on public servants to grasp the "confusing" interface between the ANC and a professional public service.

"No matter how you were appointed, no matter who appointed you, you are not accountable to the ruling party," he said. Public servants were responsible to their political heads and respective legislatures, while the ANC had its own proper channels for dealing with concerns and weak performance, he said.

"This new approach may come as a surprise to you. It may also come as a surprise to your political principals," he said.

However, Mr Manuel was firm that "political appointments, per se, are not the problem". He himself had never appointed a senior official who did not share his own "philosophical outlook" but "that has not detracted (from) us dealing with matters in a highly professional way".

Opening the summit, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe appealed for a better understanding of lines of responsibilities between political appointees and professional public servants. Mr Motlanthe warned that a lack of clarity caused "strained relations" between ministers and their senior officials, leading to a high turnover of skilled staff.

This resulted in a loss of "institutional memory". The instability occasioned by a high turnover of senior managers "inevitably leads to ineptitude during transition periods, as replacements are sought," said Mr Motlanthe.

Mr Manuel said high turnover of both government policies and of staff, as identified in the National Planning Commission’s 2011 diagnostic report, often left managers pursuing short-term agendas rather than building capacity.

The average department has "about four directors-general in 10 years. This figure is even higher at a provincial level," he said.

Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said the problems of political-administrative interface were most noticeable at local government level, where mayors may have significant executive power.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela welcomed the summit’s aim to boost professionalism, adding there was a need to improve how quickly and efficiently systems dealt with matters of concern.