ANALYSIS: Dr Tim de Maayer’s act of conscience highlights new power balance between politicians and civil servants

ANALYSIS: Dr Tim de Maayer’s act of conscience highlights new power balance between politicians and civil servants

Much of our time is spent tracking the political dynamics and the balance and shifting of power among our political elite. However, there are other important relationships that can have a meaningful impact on our society, like the relationship between the politicians in our government and the civil servants working for them. 

There is some evidence that this relationship, predicated in the past mainly on the idea that the politician had almost all of the power, is now changing. This could turn into a vitally important question on what will happen if the politicians in the national and provincial government bodies change in 2024.

Last week, Dr Tim de Maayer was suspended from his position at the Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital. His sin was writing an open letter, originally published in Daily Maverick’s sister publication, Daily Maverick 168, explaining the appalling conditions at the institution.

Unlike many other previous cases, this time it was perfectly natural that he would be reinstated the moment his suspension became public. There was simply no way that elected politicians could be seen to be punishing a whistle-blower for what was a brave act of exposing the horrendous truth about conditions in one of South Africa’s most important children’s hospitals.

And so it proved. By the end of Friday, De Maayer had been reinstated. This followed a meeting in which the Gauteng health MEC, Nomathemba Mokgethi, described as “amicable”.

The protection of public opinion

This was a case where a government employee was protected by strong and undivided public opinion. It is possible that he broke the letter of his employment contract, but he was also acting with a higher moral purpose. 

He was also restored to his position so quickly because of the passionate public outcry. 

In the months before this incident, there had been a lunchtime picket by doctors and healthcare workers at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital, with no reported consequences for those taking part.

There have also been protests demanding the full reopening of the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, including one by healthcare workers at the Helen Joseph Hospital. Again, there have been no consequences for them.

It was not always this way.

For several years, from around 2000 to 2003, there was a huge fight in Mpumalanga after a doctor and management at a state hospital allowed an anti-rape NGO to provide ARVs within the institution’s building.

The Mpumalanga Health MEC, Sibongile Manana, tried to fire Dr Thys von Mollendorff, claiming that ARVs were “poison”. In the end, Von Mollendorff won the legal case, but not without a huge struggle and an international outcry.

Much has changed.

In the early 2000s, the ANC and its government had huge political legitimacy. The ANC’s voice was regarded as powerful as it controlled nearly 67% of Parliament and its share was about to go up even further in the 2004 elections.

This gave its political office-bearers the upper hand over officials.

Also, in the years immediately after 1994, the ANC inherited departments that may have been full of officials appointed by the apartheid regime. This may have helped its argument that it was elected politicians who had the moral authority, not civil servants.

Lost moral legitimacy

These days, the ANC no longer has this moral legitimacy. This is largely, but not exclusively, because of the State Capture era.

During this time, many politicians have been perceived to be corrupt, with the result that the ANC can sometimes be seen as guilty before it can prove its innocence.

At the same time, many civil servants have been seen as trying to prevent corruption. Whistle-blowers have testified at the Zondo Commission about the political pressure they came under to sign contracts with the Guptas and how they were overruled by politicians.

In the VBS scandal, a finance official in the Capricorn District Municipality, Mariette Venter, was suspended and reinstated for trying to protect the council’s money. In the end, she saved the council a huge amount of money that would otherwise have been looted from the VBS.

In another smaller incident which may have had an important impact, a Gauteng MEC, Faith Mazibuko, was caught in an audio recording dressing down officials in the “combi court” scandal. This was important not just because of the content (she was caught on tape telling an official she had wanted a public facility, a combination court, to win votes during elections), but because of the tone she used.

It was clear that she was used to treating officials in a way unlikely to be tolerated in the private sector.

The decades of state and party-level corruption and incompetence and the clear disdain for rules and delivery have contributed to a significant weakening of elected politicians’ power in their relationships with the employed officials working for them, and a strengthening of the position of the officials.

The threat of losing power

But possibly the biggest factor is the fact that the ANC is now in danger of losing power in the national government and possibly three provinces.

It was the ANC chair, Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, who told ANC members in Welkom this past weekend that the party could lose the Free State in 2024 — a clear sign of the party’s feeling of weakness.

This must surely allow civil servants to consider talking back or disobeying elected politicians when they act with corrupt intent, or when they clearly show they are incompetent.

Some government officials may even feel they no longer need to worry too much about the politicians above them, that they should rightfully enjoy more freedom to go public if they so choose.

This happens during a breakdown of central political authority — as the ANC loses power and becomes more divided, there is no energy left to tightly control government officials.

It should also be remembered that while most employment contracts include clauses preventing officials from speaking in public, the law on this may become less important.

In the statement announcing De Maayer’s reinstatement, there was no reference to his employment contract. But, generally speaking, people are not allowed to talk publicly about their workplaces.

De Maayer could well argue that he had a higher duty, that his duty as a doctor required that he speak out about conditions that pose a risk to his patients.

But more important than that is the fact that he was morally correct. That is really what gave him the power in this situation.

Lewis Hamilton

There is an interesting high-profile international precedent to this.

Then the best ever Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton wore a T-shirt on a podium in 2020 declaring his support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Technically, this was in breach of the rules of Formula One, which say that the podium must be a “politically neutral” space.

But no action was taken. As the BBC put it, “The [governing body] FIA looked into whether they should investigate Hamilton on the grounds of breaking any rules, but decided against it.” Instead, there was an “officially sanctioned” ceremony at the beginning of races to allow drivers to show support for the movement.

This was an example where someone may have broken the technical rules, but was doing the morally correct thing. And, as in De Maayer’s case, the authorities, had they sanctioned Hamilton, would have been on the wrong side of public opinion and history.

Like the Gauteng Department of Health, they simply did not dare to take action.

Of course, there are important limits to this.

Many government officials may well be ANC supporters and may have long histories with the party. Others may simply agree with their instructions. Yet others could well be corrupt themselves and thus will not act against their bosses, or will work with their bosses to make money for themselves.

Some of the ways in which this dynamic — the power balance between elected politicians and appointed officials — works may be hard to predict. But it seems undeniable that it is changing and changing in an important way. DM


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