New stories changing the way we think about how the state works

Ivor ChipkinThe stories that are told about South Africa speak of corruption and decline of the state. We keep talking of an impending crisis, as if disaster is predicted by something intrinsic to our character as a country. We keep telling these stories over and over, but in order to understand things, we need to take a step back from the current and look at the state historically, according to Ivor Chipkin, Executive Director of the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI) and Associate Professor at the University of Witwatersrand.

Chipkin conducts ethnographic historical studies of the state that result in stories, stories which change the way we view bureaucracy and our understanding of the problems of the state. When we talk about the state, the idea of the state remains highly abstract. According to Chipkin, there is no discussion and analysis of the character of state institutions. We need to start rethinking how administration works and what it means to be a bureaucrat. The story currently being told is that our institutions are failing because of corruption and incompetence. Chipkin tells us a different story, one based on an historical analysis if the state. If we look at education in South Africa, we know that during apartheid, sections of South African provinces and homelands were governed by separate institutions. Now, 21 years after democracy was achieved, we need to look at who makes up our Department of Education. The senior managers are public servants drawn from the homelands, who each bring with them their own institutional cultures and practices. They make up the core of the institution, but they are coming from a range of different organisations and different histories. This leads to difficulties in the effective amalgamation of the separate institutions into one.

Furthermore, there are high levels of autocracy among senior management staff, but that structure does not reflect real power relations. There are therefore policies in place for development, but it may be difficult to get those below the person in charge to enforce the policies. Chipkin suggests that this could perhaps be because previous institutional cultures, perhaps a white, Indian or coloured state worker finding it difficult to follow through instructions from a black senior worker.

Many public servants are talented, committed and very hard workers, working under difficult circumstances, so why then do we still paint this picture of inefficiency? Rather than telling the same tired stories of why things don’t work, and how public service institutions are full of incompetent corrupt individuals, we need to pay attention to the complex institutional arrangements within the state.

The Public Affairs Research Institute bring more stories to us based on their institutional research.

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