The Millennium Development Goals

Blaming things on the past does not make them better.

                                                            -  Nelson Mandela

Let us face it: It should not be that South Africa continues to experience the extreme levels of poverty and chronic unemployment that so many of our citizens are subjected to as their daily experience. You know and I know that it happens not because we do not have the financial resources, and human expertise; and it is not because we do not have the legal structures and systems in place to make a difference. It happens, I submit, because of a deep-seated culture of corruption in the body politics, and because of a lack of political will to address it decisively. That culture of corruption is sustained by the absence of political will, and the prevailing societal mores that render the conduct of those in power acceptable.

Let me unpack that. There is a report in yesterday’s papers that the effort of the Minister of Public Service and Administration to rein in rampant corruption in the public service will be undermined by the extensive practice of business among politicians and senior civil servants. Fikile Majola, General Secretary of NEHAWU was protesting this bill on the grounds that the bill should not target civil servants only, because they do it because they can see that Ministers and politicians enrich themselves without anyone suggesting that they are involved in corrupt activities. That got me thinking about the statement by Advocate George Bizos SC when he remembered the late Justice Arthur Chaskalson in their days as law students at Wits. During a debate in the student body (I suspect it was about allowing black students to participate in student body activities) Chaskalson stood his ground on the basis that, it was the right thing to do. If it was the right thing to do, it had to be done. One must follow the dictates of one’s conscience irrespective of the consequences that might follow, Nelson Mandela once counseled.

I put those two together to provide a contrast in moral reasoning. The trade unionist appears to suggest that as long as the senior officials in government and in politics continue to benefit from the state, they can have no moral authority to prevent the workers from benefiting likewise. In other words for him entitlement derives from what is admitted to be wrong conduct. The effect of course is that wrong conduct becomes perpetuated. The other argument asserts that if it is right it must lead to right action.  This address seeks to make the link between corruption as moral malfeasance and actual poverty or social and economic deprivation. It suggests that professional public service excellence is about doing the right things right - first time!


The dilemma we all have about South Africa is that we have the legal systems in place. The legal systems clearly set a framework for oversight and accountability. One can draw this from the Constitution itself where it states that South Africa is a sovereign state founded on, among others, the values of “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms.” The Chapter on the Public Administration states unambiguously that

  • A high standard of professional ethics must be promoted and maintained.
  • Efficient, economic and effective use of resources must be promoted.
  • Public administration must be development oriented (Chapter 10 of the Constitution, 1996).

In other words, those values and principles enshrined in our Constitution incorporate the principles of Good Governance; transparency, accountability, responsiveness, impartiality. Good governance also means that there must be separation between management and political or governance authority, which distinction must not be blurred, leading to lack of accountability.

Legislation is in place to give effect to these values in both the Public Service and Administration Act, the Public Finance Management Act and the Municipal Finance Management Act. In addition we have monitoring and enforcement agencies that include the courts, and the Chapter 9 institutions: the Public Protector and the Auditor General, among them. How come then that 20 years since the dawn of democracy we are still battling with these fundamental issues that constitute the heart of our constitutional values and democratic system? That is the question I want to inch towards answering.

Of course, we must admit that there are some matters that cannot be legislated. I doubt that civility and decency can ever be legislated. In the Masethla case Justice Albie Sachs penned a minority judgment concurring with the majority. He went as far as I think he could. He said that “Constitutionally-created institutions need constantly to be nurtured if they are to function well. This requires that those who exercise public power should avoid wherever possible acting in a manner which may unduly disturb public confidence in the integrity of the incumbents of these institutions.” He went on to say that “civility” was a constitutional requirement. “It presupposes tolerance for those with whom one disagrees and respect for the dignity of those with whom one is in dispute.” He ended his discourse by stating that the Constitution presupposed that public power would be exercised in a manner that is not arbitrary and not unduly disrespectful of the dignity of those adversely affected by the exercise (2009:155).

I am interested in this not so much in the application to the facts of the case but in exploring the soft power of the Constitutional values.  I had never thought that “civility” as Sachs J puts it could be a constitutional imperative. That is because “civility” is hard to enforce. It is something inherent in one’s character, rather than a rule one obeys. It is, if you like, a moral principle. In my own language I use the expression “decency” to refer to the acceptable standards of moral conduct, that society expects, and without which the glue that holds society together would not hold.

That “glue” in my view is also society’s understanding of itself, and its capacity to control and manage public conduct by its own sense of revulsion at unacceptable and immoral conduct, and by the sense of shame immoral behavior causes. I fear that we cease to be fully and truly human when we no longer have any sense of right and wrong, or any sense of shame at wrongdoing, or when we justify immoral conduct in ourselves or others. Our country is teetering on the brink of that moral precipice.


I have referred to the systems that our country has put in place since 1994. Among these one must not leave out our international obligations. The African Peer Review Mechanism (2003) is an instrument of the NEPAD Declaration (2001). The Declaration was conceived as Africa’s own undertaking to use its resources and instruments of state to act collaboratively to advance development in the Continent, to fight underdevelopment and poverty, and to assure sustainable growth and development. Recognizing that such declarations required supportive instruments the Peer review Mechanism was established.

The APRM is a monitoring and accountability protocol for those member states that signed into the NEPAD Declaration. Signatories to the APRM make a commitment to do everything possible to implement the recommendations adopted as a result of the peer review process and “to accept that constructive peer dialogue and persuasion would be exercised, where necessary, in order to encourage improvements in country practices and policies in compliance with agreed African and international best practices where recommended.” The member states committed themselves therefore to being made accountable by their peers for democratic and Good Political governance, in Economic and Corporate Governance and in Socio-Economic Development. In other words the commitment was to promote and practice good governance and put systems in place to ensure accountability, transparency in governance and addressing matters like corruption.

In his article Good Governance and political stability in Africa: is the APRM working?  Unisa academic Funmi Abioye places at the centre of the failure of the APRM to deliver on its promise, the lack of political will to act according to the commitments of the APRM, in the independence of the review panel, in engaging honestly and with integrity rather than defensively with the report, and acting with speed to address matters raised in the Report, and he concludes

As with many other grand ideas and initiatives that have been implemented in Africa, the main test of the effectiveness of the APRM will be seen in the political will of African states to change their trajectory, and in the positive impact it makes on members (2011:200).

The promise of our nation to the world and to us as citizens was that we shall seek to be a nation at peace with itself and with the world. Part of that “being at peace” entails being a diligent member of the world community, working together with other nations to build a world of peace and security and to assure sustainable development for all. This we do not just out of duty but out of our own sense of wellbeing of this nation being tied up with the well-being of the world. It was with fanfare and jubilation therefore that the Millennium General Assembly of the United Nations in 2000 adopted the Millennium Development Goals. Prominent among the eight Goals are the following:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger;
  • Achieve universal primary education
  • Promote gender equality and the empowerment of women;
  • Reduce child mortality; and
  • Improve maternal health.

Annually at the General Assembly member states provide status reports on their progress towards 2015 in meeting the targets set by the MDGs. It is generally agreed that progress has been very patchy, good in parts but bad in others. The point of the MDGs though is that nations, rich and poor should work together to assure for all nations a reasonable and decent standard of living on which peace and security could be assured. It also requires that nations should cooperate to realize each nation’s priorities. For example, on MDG 1 Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger the goal was to half the proportion of those who lived on a income of less than US$1,25 per day. Strangely, at R400 per month and without controls on essential commodities of life like food, housing and shelter, transport etc, R400 is never going to get one very far from extreme poverty.  This means that for many developing and underdeveloped nations the targets could never be met on the strength of their own resources. The realization of the goals thus becomes a matter for global development and governance. The MDGs also set the target for full and productive employment and decent work especially for youth and women by 2015 and to ensure universal primary education. Let me pause to note that we are nowhere near meeting this target in South Africa, notwithstanding our economic status. Unemployment especially of youth and women has reached the staggering heights of some 70%. Besides Ministers often note that about 3m young South Africans cannot be accounted for at work, school or higher education.  As for women we have reached the point where the feminization of poverty is no longer just a slogan but reality for the vast proportion of women in our country.

One cannot help but see these as targets of intent and aspiration. But the world community, like at all levels of society must operate on the basis of trust, that the leaders who sign onto the commitments mean and truly intend to order their national priorities to give effect to these governance principles. That is the basis of regular reporting, and in the work of the UN agencies like UNDP to assist nations with the provision of their own National MDGs or Human development indices.


Given all of this then one needs to look beyond the pronouncements of the politicians at all levels of our society who are often eager to gloss over the challenges we face, and therefore fail to address radically the problems and find sustainable solutions. StatsSA tells us that of the 52m population official unemployment stands at 26,5%. South Africans now know that the actual figure of the unemployed is arguably (nobody knows for a fact) above 40%. This has meant that the state has had to sustain a comprehensive system of grants and housing in order to provide a safety net for the indigent poor of our society. It is also an  indubitable fact that overall unemployment is not reducing in our country, and that many of the predictions of jobs are not being realized. What jobs were created was often matched by those that were lost, especially in the private sector. Right now, as a country we face the continuous haemorrhaging of jobs in the mining sector long considered the backbone of the South African economy. Not enough has been done to diversify and efforts at beneficiating and thus create alternative economies out of mining are not yet substantial enough to make a difference. That, together with what can only be considered to be the collapse of our much respected labour relations system from the shopfloor to NEDLAC is surprisingly being greeted with little sense of urgency.

Our industrial and economic development policies are mired, I think, in diffused centres of planning and decision-making from DTI, the Treasury and Economic Development departments. The result is that the performance of our economy is rather static at 2% or less growth rate. No wonder then that with an economy in doldrums, and labour relations disruptive and unstable wealth creators as in the private sector are hesitant about investment, and other competing investment destinations are benefiting. More alarmingly, it is amazing that South African capital is not available to invest in our country. Those that do simply cash on the  promised infrastructure investment programmes. Is it not about time that South Africa undertakes a radical review of her economic and fiscal system after some 20 years of a largely failed system?

While this lackluster performance of government remains cause for concern, and the promise of the NDP rather like Waiting for Godot is a long way from being realised, the amazing thing is that government’s efforts are also being undermined by the prevailing culture of corruption and impunity.   “Corruption in government- that is a plague that must be erased from every regime in every place in the world” says Nelson Mandela. In our case, for example, even the various agencies of the SA Police Service are distracted from their task by being engaged in political brinkmanship at a huge cost to the maintenance of law and order and safety and security for the citizens. It took nearly five years for a permanent NDPP to be appointed, and that at the behest of the courts. The Head of SIU was also much delayed. Clearly it had nothing to do with the availability of suitable personnel to undertake the task, but matters that had nothing to do with good governance came into play. Since 2009 we have had Big Government as a multiplication of bureaucracy and we have had little benefit from that. Presumably that came out of a well considered assessment of effective and efficient government, but no tangible results are forthcoming. Why?  We have had instances where convicted criminals have been set free on parole on dubious grounds. Then we have the SAPS swaying as if rudderless in the wild seas, clearly much too focused on problems within rather than addressing the prevalence of crime in society.


The dilemma is this. We have got to a point where much of what is legislated, as well as the policies and systems in place, are being undermined by the very people who are the guardians of our legal system, in the making of political appointments, in the exercise of patronage, in the abuse of the system to advance not just political ends, but to avoid the consequences of their own criminal activities. For that reason, the pronouncements of political leaders no longer have credibility, and the integrity of government actions in almost all instances is suspect. We can never have government by distrust. That is the reason we have endless “service delivery” protest everywhere as one protester said at Malamulele last week, we do it because we know that this is the only way that government will listen to us. That is government by distrust!

The Minister of the Public Service and Administration comes across as a breath of fresh air into this tepid atmosphere. She is making efforts to establish within the public service a culture of accountability and of professional ethics, exactly as was promised in the Constitution. The public service must engender the culture of service excellence: doing the right thing first. We are very fortunate that we have had the tireless efforts of the Auditor General and the Public Protector to seek to make all organs of state accountable.  Such deserve the support of the political structures including parliament and its committees, and not the kind of unseemly harping that the Public Protector has been subjected to in Parliament.

It is accordingly not very hard to make the link between corruption and poor service in the public service and the prevalence of poverty in society. Such is the case even though a lot has also been achieved. There have been reports of total breakdown in the health services in the Eastern cape; there are reports of a schooling system that no longer serves the interests of the learners or the taxpayers. At best perhaps it serves the interests of organized labour who have managed to establish themselves as unaccountable. I live in Grahamstown, a city that is one of this country’s pre-eminent education centres. This year alone the city has been without water for three periods of about 10 days each. The reason is not because there was no water in the reservoirs or due to drought. The reason is that the pumps have broken down had not been maintained, and in one instance, the workers took a day off without having primed the pump, (or allegations to that effect). We have had reports of children dying of hunger and malnutrition, or of patients dying in hospital queues in clinics because help could not reach them soon enough. We have had basic hygiene compromised by strikes in hospital facilities or poor supervision. Violence, and sexual violence against women and children and the elderly have reached crisis proportions. Meanwhile, public servants who should be dispensing grants to deserving and indigent citizens, instead rob them of their livelihood by a callous theft of their meager dependence. The Minister of Social Development this week raised the alarm about the agency that dispenses grants doing business with cash lenders on the information made available to them by those receiving grants. For all this ordinary citizens can see that there is no consequence to wrongdoing, and that by the time arrests are made huge damage has been done, and it continues nonetheless.


But what is going on? And what must be done?  I am hoping that the efforts of the Minister of Public Service and Administration will bear fruit. It means that the culture of service excellence and professional ethics must be entrenched in to a Code of Conduct failure to abide by which will result in disciplinary action. I also hope that the Public Service Academy being launched today will help create a new culture in the public service at all levels.

I have a sense that there are too many Corruption agencies operating in the country, and no wonder systems and operations to combat corruption are so uneven, competitive and inadequately resourced.  Is it not about time that some of these were consolidated? A starting pojnt could be that a review of all anti-corruption agencies be instituted as a matter of urgency.  Besides, mere consolidation and accountability, it must be the case that anti-corruption agencies must be guaranteed independence and insulated from political interference. There is a danger to “independence” when a parliamentary committee deems that it is justified in questioning the decision-making of the Public Protector in operational matters!

There is a danger in society that the trust deficit between the governed and the governors will dissipate to an alarming degree. That is because the level of public trust in government and in state institutions will become so low that ordinary citizens will take no notice of the pronouncements of government and would have no confidence or respect for politics and politicians.

I want to end with two substantial recommendations. One is that every institution of state should subject itself to an annual ethics audit, even if it is as part of the annual audit process. An ethics audit should reveal the prevailing ethos of the institution, and the culture and caliber of leadership, and shortfalls between policy pronouncements and practice. My second, is that this country should convene an annual Ethics Conference, bringing together all role players and experts to probe deeper into what would make us to be a nation that abides by our constitutional values.

With a renewed emphasis on quality and expert human resources in the public service, attention could be given, for example, to restoring the independence and authority of the Public Service Commission which has gradually in recent years had its scope of responsibility constricted by a culture of political centralization. With that also must come a commitment by government at all levels to make appointments on merit without political patronage, or ethnic considerations, or nepotism. If you come to think of it, we can never be a winning nations simply on the talent of only those who support the politics of the governing or majority party. No one party has the monopoly of skills and intelligence. We need to open up the civil service to all South Africans so that all of us can take responsibility for advancing our constitutional vision.

Finally, in South Africa we have a problem of ethical leadership. Good governance is driven by good, moral leadership. By that I mean leadership that is bound by the principles and values of the Constitution, that is accountable and responsive; that is exemplary and can be trusted; that is not afraid of openness and transparency, and that is consultative. Somehow we need to re-imagine leadership afresh in our country in the light of the woes that we are currently experiencing. Frankly, we are labouring under a crisis of leadership in our country. Unless we fix that, much of what has been promised will surely come to naught.


 N Barney Pityana GCOB

Rector: College of the Transfiguration Grahamstown;

Visiting Honorary Professor, Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics,

Department of Philosophy, Rhodes University, Grahamstown;

Professor Emeritus in Law, University of South Africa.

Pretoria, 21 October 2013.

Last Modified: Tue, 11 Mar 2014 16:06:31 SAST