South Africa

MAVERICK INTERVIEW: Ayanda Dlodlo: In the trenches of public service and administration – and reconfiguration of government

Public Service and Administration Minister Ayanda Dlodlo does not mince her words. Asked whether she’d step down now that Nhlanhla Nene has resigned as finance minister over a series of meetings with the Guptas he had lied about, she asked ‘why?’. The 2015 stopover in Dubai was not paid for by the Guptas, and when asked about it, or meeting the Guptas, she answered truthfully. Dlodlo holds the line.

I could have lied and said Fana (Hlongwana) is my boyfriend and that (matter) would have gone away. I would not have had to answer to anyone. But I chose not to lie, first and foremost because he’s not my boyfriend, secondly when questions are asked I feel I am accountable and should answer as truthfully as I can….” That was Public Service and Administration Minister Ayanda Dlodlo’s answer in Wednesday’s interview with Daily Maverick when asked about the 2015 detour to Dubai and accommodation at the super-plush Oberoi hotel. The trip emerged in mid-2017 as part of the first slice of #GuptaLeaks. The DA reported Dlodlo to Parliament’s ethics committee for failing to declare the trip which Dlodlo says was paid partly by herself and “part sponsored” by Hlongwana, an ex-arms deal consultant more recently linked to Gupta-related companies. Regarding the Guptas, Dlodlo said: “I’ve met them before. I’m not going to deny that I met them at my house when I was still the secretary-general of uMKhonto we Sizwe (MKMVA). I have no relationship with them…” She and Hlongwane go way back to their exile days: “I come out of the same house.” Today Dlodlo is under a different type of pressure. If it’s not complaints about public servants and corruption, it’s criticism over the high public sector wage bill that in these tough economic times takes money away from service delivery, or Cabinet colleagues with a penchant for hiring more staff than what is allowed. No, Dlodlo says, she’s not having chats with Cabinet colleagues about matters of office or the Executive Ethics Act, including stipulations “at all times to act in good faith and in the best interest of good governance”.

That’s the responsibility of the president. And while the ministerial handbook, under review for a decade, was submitted for official approval shortly after Dlodlo delivered her budget vote debate in May 2018, that approval has not yet happened.

Dlodlo says her responsibility is civil servants – and the reconfiguration of government. That was handed to her by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who in his maiden State of the Nation Address (SONA) in February 2018 announced a review of “the configuration, number and size” of national government. It is critical that the structure and size of the state is optimally suited to meet the needs of the people and ensure the most efficient allocation of public resources,” he said then.

That review process is under way. But right now there is no deadline as it’s looking more like a phased approach than a big bang one-off event. There are just so many threads to weave together.

What we have been concentrating on is the organisation. We are looking at the reduction of numbers,” said Dlodlo. If the rationale is a more streamlined, capable and stable state, or stable government, what are the things we need to put in place quite apart from saying this department needs to fold, this department needs to be established…” It’s about mandates, people’s competencies and training and matching need to skill. Perhaps that’s why it’s not surprising that despite concerns about the public wage bill of the around 1.3-million civil servants, Dlodlo sees not necessarily a bloated administration, but a mismatch. To illustrate, she recounted how two days into the job the new Centre for Public Service Innovation boss came to her to say: “I have more corporate support people than people who deliver on the core business.” And so that’s changing. Dlodlo is introducing a pilot for her department, the centre and other entities in her portfolio to share corporate support staff, and retraining others to move to areas where skills are needed. If that’s successful, such a shared services system would be rolled up. It’s part of the reorganisation of the state. Ministers must take quick action, and pay more attention. And this included taking action when there are transgressions by public servants doing business with the state. Banned since January 2017 under the public service regulations, reports of contraventions keep on emerging, whether in parliamentary questions, annual reports or from the auditor-general. I’m coming in at the tail end and I’m trying to fix the loopholes in the system,” said Dlodlo, adding she had brought on board a “trusted” former colleague from when she served as Gauteng safety and security MEC. He’s already talking to National Treasury to marry information from its central supplier database to the government employee salary system, Persal. We are wanting to clean all civil servants that are doing business with the state or are in companies doing business with the state… Out of that we are starting to look at consequence intervention.” And at another level, there are moves to clear the backlog of disciplinary cases. Even if the departments don’t do it, between the Treasury and us we will do it.” Dlodlo has a wide background and networks to draw on, from intelligence, security, private corporate to public sector governance. From uMkhonto we Sizwe and intelligence training in exile to studying shipping – traditionally quite a closed shop across the world, but a qualification that took her to ports in the UK and the US. Back in South Africa she’s worked at Portnet, Telkom and Sanlam. There’s been a stint as special director in the Scorpions until 2004 when she joined the Gauteng government as safety and security MEC. Of course, she has served for 11 years on the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC). It’s not always been a smooth path. In May 2007 fraud and corruption charges related to R700 and R30,000 were dropped seven months after she handed herself over to police. And then there was the MKMVA becoming mired in financial and internal politicking controversies. Dlodlo came to Parliament after the 2009 elections as former president Jacob Zuma’s parliamentary councillor, according to the official profile on the departmental website. In 2010 she was appointed deputy public service and administration minister – and as country envoy to the Open Government Partnership. After detours as communications and home affairs minister in 2017, Ramaphosa in February 2018 appointed her public service and administration minister. Across from the ministerial offices at 120 Plein Street, Parliament, the watchdog on public spending, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) and the Standing Committee on Appropriations, decided ministers and directors-general should be held responsible for failing in their governance duties under the Public Finance Management Act. Scopa chairperson Themba Godi and his appropriations committee counterpart, Yvonne Phosa, in a statement on Wednesday described the auditor-general’s 2017/18 audit outcomes as “appalling” – and a consecutive increase of irregular expenditure to R50-billion in the year under review. Asked whether ministers and DGs should be held accountable for irregular expenditure because the political buck stops with ministers, and administratively with DGs, Dlodlo smoothly sidestepped, having had earlier questions about those public service ethics chats with Cabinet colleagues. Some of us are sticklers for process and details… I understand accountability from the administrative perspective, but also from a political perspective.” And in many ways that means that pleading ignorance and inaction are not options. (Irregular expenditure) is not necessarily as bad as corruption, but it’s almost as bad because money is lost in the system that should not have been lost in the first (place),” said Dlodlo. “… (T)he ministers must start taking actions against DGs. The ripple effect of that is also a cascading effect, if DGs don’t take actions against their deputy DGs, and so it goes down. You will see this rise in irregular expenditure because nothing happens when bad things happen in government.” What’s needed was a new culture in government. But change management was difficult. It all comes back to us as managers. Why don’t managers take action? It’s not like all of them don’t know. But some are just too scared to take action…” South Africans are very vulnerable right now in the current tough economic environment and the stubbornly persistent joblessness. But there’s a new culture needed also – that much talked-about active citizenry. If we were all to say ‘I will not pay a bribe’; ‘I will not give you money for processing my invoice’, ‘I will not pay to get a driver’s licence’, all of those things, if society were to say that, we would move a long way to reduce the ills of society,” said Dlodlo. People just need to take over their country and say to these public servants, ‘we are not going to pay those bribes’….” It’s about taking a decision and a stand. Is she hopeful? For the future? Oh yes, I am,” said Dlodlo. “I just have confidence in South Africans at some point we will get gatvol with corruption, with all of the ills of society, with drugs in our streets, men who rape us … At some point there comes a point when a people say ‘enough is enough’.” And so, Dlodlo holds the line. DM