Let’s talk about the state’s incompetence


Transnet asked the government for a massive capital injection and to take over R60 billion of their debt of R130 billion. Eskom, the SAA and the SABC have been doing this for years, to name just a few.

There is no doubt that corruption is a huge millstone around their necks, but so is incompetence at operational, management and board levels. In fact, it lies at the heart of problematic business models, drives up costs (and with it taxes) and often overlaps with corruption.

Certain examples are relevant. The SABC recently reported on the auditor-general’s (AG) concerns about the excessive use of consultants at municipalities. The amount spent on these consultants (who especially fail to solve the mess and moreover contribute to irregular spending) has increased by R1 billion in the current financial year compared to last year. Apart from this, it has grown from R100 million to R1.6 million over the past decade. They perform basic accounting functions that the full-time staff should be doing.

The value of civil claims against the police rose by a staggering 511% during the same period, reports Network24. There are pending claims to the value of R108 billion and although they have obviously not yet been settled, this exceeds the police’s budget of R102.5 billion in the current financial year. The police expert dr. Johan Burger says the police paid out R647.9 million in the 2022/-23 financial year, compared to R106 million in 2011/-12. He further argues that despite this increase due to, among other things, wrongful arrest, disciplinary hearings have decreased by 67% – which undeniably fuels this perverse trend.

The same applies to the health sector. An interesting yet scandalous example is how Matthew Lani, who does not even have matric, gave out medical advice as a pretend doctor on TikTok while wandering through the corridors of the Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg. After a media uproar he was arrested but he is by no means alone. The BBC reported that, according to the Department of Health, a total of 124 bogus doctors had been arrested over the last three years.

Like police officers, people’s lives are often in the hands of doctors and the wrong treatment can claim their lives rather than save them. These quacks occupy positions that should have been filled by a suitable person. South Africa is losing real doctors at an astounding rate – something the country cannot afford – while this situation continues.

The legal expert Larisse Prinsen writes in an academic article that medical legal claims due to misconduct and negligence have increased significantly since 2007. In 2020/21 alone, R5.6 billion was granted due to these claims. The Eastern Cape Department of Health has pending claims amounting to R40 billion and has paid out R921 million during 2020/-21 due to medical negligence. Unfortunately, there are some legitimate mistakes made by qualified personnel and some lawyers who work with these are over-eager to make money, but these claims are too successful and large to be attributed solely to accidents and fatigue.

While this lack of accountability and capacity in the state has many causes (such as cadre deployment), the government has failed to adequately train and equip its staff to fulfill their mandate. The state is overloaded with unnecessary and unqualified managers as well as administrative staff. This drives up the growing salary bill and size of government entities, at the expense of purchasing equipment and technical staff.

In addition to this, there is an entire ecosystem that keeps this incompetence going. Who hires these incompetents in the first place? And how did Lani get into the hospital to record his videos? These questions need serious answers, because they undoubtedly involve corruption and/or further incompetence in many cases.

Incompetence and a lack of accountability in the state not only shorten service delivery, but also gobble up money that could have been spent more wisely. The Eastern Cape Department of Health has started to hire more lawyers and legal experts to fend off the rising legal demands, instead of acquiring more medical staff and equipment. This curse is often overlooked when apportioning the blame for government failures.

But like corruption (which can at least be measured by certain criteria), it is difficult, even impossible, to quantify the direct and indirect costs of these appointments and wasted costs. What is even more startling is that, like corruption, incompetence is a blow to the country’s viability and, moreover, is largely avoidable.