A theory in human evolution argues that homo-sapiens endured in the evolutionary race over parallel hominid species because we had reached the stage of conceptual thought and co-operation towards common ends. This co-operation eventually led to the structuring of communities into ruling groups and those who serve the rulers especially when humans settled. Archaeological research at diverse sites and Inca cities such as Teotihuacan; shows there was a ruling class and those who ensured that the wishes of the rulers over the ruled were carried out. These were senior bureaucrats and referred to here only as bureaucrats.
History is replete with examples where bureaucrats have contributed towards regime change through collusion with competing political interests. In its most extreme form, it accelerated the decline of the various pre-colonial societies.
Colonial forces did not merely gain control through superior military prowess, they were also abetted by the intrigue of insiders on whom the rulers relied. The relationships between vacillating bureaucrats and shifting centres of power and control are, therefore, as old as humans have been around. Contemporary governance systems have come to recognise the need for distance between political and administrative leaders and have tried to avoid intrigue by ensuring bureaucratic accountability in different ways.
In the USA, the top administrative structure changes when new leaders assume office. The administrations are obligated to carry out the mandate of the elected leaders represented by the team appointed by those leaders. Similarly, those bureaucrats leave when the leader leaves office. In the UK, the bureaucrats are expected to lead the policies of the party elected. Their job is to implement, not second-guess, the policies of elected governments. India has the Indian Administrative Service which one cannot simply join.
To become a member of the IAS, one applies and must qualify for membership to serve in a non-partisan bureaucracy. In all democratic systems, bureaucrats are expected to implement the policies of democratically elected leaders. In other words, democratic governance survives because bureaucrats have defined roles and responsibilities in which political engagement is not encouraged.
South Africa’s system also has expectations of a non-partisan administration which is why individual leaders in political office do not make senior administrative appointments but are permitted to have advisors who engage with the bureaucrats. Politicians play a large role in the appointment of bureaucrats leading to the appointment of pliant or pliable functionaries. Therefore, the state of political parties determines the type of bureaucrats who are in charge and how they account. Despite robust laws, regulations and auditing processes which require the contrary, bureaucrats often allow themselves to become involved in political intrigue.
The history of public administration has shown that few, if any, bureaucrats who have been involved in intrigue have survived. In ancient times, there were simply killed because their traitorous demeanour made them unreliable even for the regimes they enabled. If the South African version of political intrigue is collusion between politicians and bureaucrats towards the common goal of graft, then the continuous exposures have shown the consequences for bureaucrats and their trysts.
These exposures show that bureaucrats lost their livelihoods because of their involvement in intrigue, but the consequences for the politicians involved has been negligible. Through disciplinary process and criminal charges, bureaucrats who allowed themselves to be compromised have come off second best. There is no disciplinary process I can recall where a politician has been a witness for any bureaucrat facing charges of graft.
In South Africa, like many post-colonial societies, there is an expectation of obsequiousness that often morphs into compromised relationships because of the role played by politicians in the appointment of bureaucrats. Bureaucrats need to be conscious of the boundaries established by the regime and respect that.
Firstly, be confident of your knowledge, competence and experience then ensure that these are applied even at the risk of being labelled uncooperative, arrogant, or unaccountable.
Secondly, the law, regulations and policies always come before opinions, desires, and conjecture. The South African public sector regime is robust, accountable, and protective. It ensures accountability, allows for innovation, and protects those bureaucrats who follow the prescripts towards the public good.
Thirdly, respect the lines of accountability and use only the formal and legislative processes to account. Bureaucrats account to politicians and politicians account to the public. Reports and accounts should be complete and comprehensible to avoid suspicion and scepticism.
Fourthly, democratically elected leaders have the right to lobby for investments in their constituencies if these are legitimately located in plans and budgets. Bureaucrats need to apply the appropriate supply chain management processes to ensure that these investments are made.
Fifthly, recognise the difference between cordiality and familiarly because it is the latter which often gets bureaucrats into trouble.
As the Special Investigations Unit starts to exercise its new authority, several senior bureaucrats are going to be under deeper scrutiny. The only way to protect ourselves, and our democracy, is for bureaucrats to be neutral in their views and to follow the regime. To be part of any intrigue is to sow the seeds of our own demise.