The ANC’s cadre deployment policy has come back to haunt them

The ANC has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994. One of its policies, cadre deployment, has been a contentious issue in the country. Cadre deployment is the practice of placing people in strategic positions at various levels of government based on their loyalty to the party, rather than their competence. Critics argue that this practice has resulted in widespread corruption and mismanagement in the government. As a result, the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has challenged the policy in court, and there have been growing calls to reconsider it for merit-based recruitment and selection in the public sector. This article was first published by The Conversation

South Africa’s ruling party has favoured loyalty over competence – now cadre deployment has come back to bite it

By Dirk Kotze*

Cadre deployment is one of the best-known policies of the African National Congress (ANC), which has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994. And many of the party’s woes over the past decade can be traced back to it.

The concept of “deployment” has a strong military association. Conventionally, it is about tactical deployment of troops or infrastructure during military operations. In this instance it is used to describe how the ANC places people in strategic positions at various levels of government.

“Cadre” refers to a dedicated, highly motivated and trained member of an organisation or party. Not all members of such an organisation are, therefore, cadres. During its years as an underground organisation when many of its members were in exile, the ANC used the term to describe members who were ideologically schooled in party thinking. The term is much more loosely applied today.

Cadre deployment is part of official ANC policy. It is applied at national, provincial and local level.

But there is growing discontent in the country about it. Many blame it for the widespread corruption and mismanagement in government. The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has gone to court to have the policy declared illegal and against the constitution.

It is unrealistic to argue that there should be no political involvement in important appointments in the public service. It happens in almost all political systems. Take, for example, the American president’s role in nominating all new judges of the Supreme Court. The Senate must confirm these appointments, but the nomination process is a party political one. This is not regarded as unlawful or unconstitutional.

So why the deep concern about it in South Africa? Can the practice be reconciled with the democratic tradition?

Read more: Cadre deployment has fallen…but legal fight continues

The problem with cadre deployment

One of many components of any effective democracy is regular changes in government. Changes in which party governs a country are accompanied by changes in the top political appointments in the public service. This avoids party appointees becoming entrenched in their positions.

The problem for South Africa is that only one party has run the national government since 1994. It means that a rotation of senior officials with different political orientations has not happened. It also means that specific views and practices have become entrenched, and the procedural protection provided by checks and balances have become ineffective. Merit as a prerequisite for senior appointments was replaced by party loyalty.

More recently, the ANC is experiencing the public’s unhappiness with this state of affairs. It has already lost its majority in major cities such as Johannesburg, the country’s economic hub; Tshwane, the seat of government; and Nelson Mandela Bay, in the Eastern Cape, the party’s historical stronghold.

Behind this loss of support are state capture, poor service delivery and a decline in state institutional capacity.

The common denominator in all of them is cadre deployment.

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The ANC and cadre deployment

Cadre deployment as an ANC policy is used for two purposes. The first is to appoint its members to key public positions. The second is internally in the ANC, for members who move from one position to another. In the past, it used to be an honour for a member to claim that he or she was deployed as a cadre. That’s because it suggested that the member is disciplined, obeys the ANC’s instructions and is not motivated by personal interests. That honourable association with the policy has turned into a negative perception for the public in general.

Over the last two decades, the policy has increasingly come under attack for justifying the appointment of key people who are not necessarily qualified for their positions, and who even act in their own interests. Even in the case of qualified persons, their appointments happened under the cloud of privileged treatment and not a level playing field.

Cadre deployment has also become contentious within the ANC itself because of growing factionalism. This practice influences who are appointed as cabinet ministers and senior managers of state-owned enterprises and the public service.

Discontent with the way the policy has been implemented has led to some proposed changes.

In October 2022 the cabinet adopted the “National Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Sector”. It agreed that

the cadre deployment practices must be reconsidered for merit-based recruitment and selection in the public sector.

Earlier, in August 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed legislation that prevents city managers and senior municipal officers from holding office in any political party.

The two decisions are important steps in separating the powers of the political executive and the public service. Enforcement of this new principle will not be easy, but it sets an alternative for cadre deployment.

Read more: DA leader clarifies “ANC coalition” post-2024; fixing Eskom; and hope for Joburg – and South Africa

Big challenges

The Zondo Commission, which investigated corruption, fraud, maladministration and unethical conduct during former president Jacob Zuma’s administration, concluded that cadre deployment contributed towards state capture.

This conclusion adds a judicial aspect to criticism of the policy, and also questions its moral justification.

The DA was motivated by the commission’s report to challenge cadre deployment in court. The party wants to have the policy declared unlawful and against the constitution.

The case is significant in many respects.

Firstly, it has created an opportunity for the DA to challenge the ANC on how it has structured the relationship between the party, government and state. The cadre deployment policy can show how the three became conflated at an early stage of the ANC’s tenure in power.

Abuse of cadre deployment, moreover, puts the ANC’s record of governance and service delivery in the spotlight. Given the policy, the ANC cannot claim that its bad governance record is primarily due to bad officials or individual problems. Cadre deployment means that the party has to take responsibility for the poor standard of governance – not just implicated individual officials.

This line of thinking has emerged as a contentious matter in the question of who should carry responsibility for the failures of the power utility, Eskom.

Secondly, the court case gives the DA an opportunity to link cadre deployment to state capture in general, and the ANC’s abuse of government powers. This allows it to challenge the ruling party’s moral claim to be the main agent for transforming South Africa into a democratic and humane society.

Thirdly, the court case presents a serious predicament for the ANC. Many of its members joined the party because of the job opportunities that cadre deployment provides. If the ANC distances itself from the policy it will lose some of its attraction.

The end of an era?

It is very likely to lose momentum. The decline in support for the ANC suggests that coalition governments will become increasingly common in the country. It’s possible that the ANC will have to share power in the national sphere after the 2024 general election. Governing in coalitions will make it virtually impossible for cadre deployment to continue in its current form.

The implication of these changes in power relations is that cadre deployment in its ANC format will have to make way for a different relationship between the governing parties and senior public servants.

Instead of regular government rotations, the diversification of government in the form of coalitions will also serve as necessary checks and balances on the political-bureaucratic relations and transform cadre deployment into a more acceptable practice.

*Dirk Kotze is a Professor of Political Science at the University of South Africa