The politicisation of the public service

The politicisation of the public service

Different branches of Lesotho’s public service have featured in the country’s experiences of political instability in two ways, at least: first, as victims of destabilisation by ruling parties; and, second, as important real and perceived contributors to acts that produce political instability in the country. In large part, this has happened because, since independence, leaders of ruling political parties have sought to fill public service positions with supporters and members of their parties.

This is achieved in a number of ways, including: removal of individuals currently holding public service positions when they are, or are considered to be, members of opposition parties; creation of positions for sole purpose of accommodating supporters of ruling parties; various forms of discrimination against individuals appointed under previous regimes; and so on.

In some cases, those newly-appointed to higher public service positions in these ways, and entrusted with more responsibility, have little, or no, public service experience. These practices have made difficult an emergence of a stable, independent, knowledgeable and party-politically neutral public service in Lesotho. In addition, these practices have created a public service made up of individuals and groups who have a stake in political parties’ struggles for power, and who conduct themselves, or are perceived to conduct themselves, in party-political ways in their discharge of public duties.

This manner of appointing public servants, and the perceived, or real, party-political conduct of such public servants once in office, have been one of the sources of political instability in Lesotho. This paper is an attempt to trace the emergence and entrenchment of the culture of party-politicisation of Lesotho’s public service, and to raise some questions regarding influences behind it.

Introduction: How a Destabilised Public Service can be a Source of Political Instability

When a culture of appointing public servants along political party allegiances entrenches itself, as has happened in Lesotho, one result may be instability which may take, at least, two forms. Firstly, continual change in public service personnel as different groups who come to power incessantly vie for filling positions in public institutions with ‘their own’.

In this way, the public service is destabilised in that, a body of public servants does not begin to develop who have security of tenure and are able to develop loyalty to their offices, and to secure and protect their independence from politicians.

Further, because, in such situations, public servants change each time a different party comes to power, political interference of politicians in appointments to the public service makes difficult development of a stable body of cadres with freedom of thought and action, knowledge and experience of public affairs from which governments can benefit, regardless of which political party forms a government.

Secondly, one of the cardinal functions of individuals and groups appointed to public institutions is to provide public services, including intervening in disputes, in non-partisan ways intended to establish and maintain public order.  When appointment of such individuals and groups is openly partisan, it becomes difficult for the public to view their interventions and the services they provide as being non-partisan.

Those who may feel that they do not receive fair treatment from this politically-partisan public service may engage in activities, mostly illegal and anti-social, of redress which may be inimical to a stable social order.
Terms ‘party-politicisation’ and ‘public servant’ have been used throughout this paper. They are preferred over ‘politicisation’ and ‘civil servant’, respectively.

‘Politicisation’ implies an unrealistic state of ‘un-politicised’, and that, public servants, as individuals and as a group, are capable of being politics-free. ‘Party-politicisation’ is used here to refer to a policy of consciously and openly prioritising political party membership among criteria of appointment to public service positions. In turn, the term ‘civil servant’ has the disadvantage (which ‘public service’ does not have) that, it excludes other categories of public servants, such as the military.

Public Service and the Nature of Bureaucracy

All organised society has public duties whose performance is entrusted to institutions staffed by individuals and groups appointed in various ways. These duties are normally divided into three main categories of administration, law-making, and maintenance of law and order. Principally, performance of these law-making, law-keeping and administrative duties is aimed at achieving and maintaining stability of an agreed social order.

The service that public institutions provide is recognised as service, or services, rendered to members of the public — whether as individuals or as groups — to enable them to pursue their economic, political and social interests, and, thereby, secure their welfare. They are services that are seen as fulfilling the general, as opposed to individual and sectional, interest.

Provision of public services is important for social and political stability because, by securing welfare of members of the public, it reduces possibilities for social and political disorder that would result from absence of such services.  It would seem to follow from this that, among other things, institutions entrusted to provide public services should be manned by individuals and groups appointed in ways that do not generate public perceptions of partiality towards some groups of the public at the expense of others.

To guarantee that individuals and institutions entrusted to perform public services do so in the general interest, rules and regulationsare are laid down which authorities that appoint to public institutions are expected to follow. Failure by appointing-authority to follow these rules often leads to perceived and real failure by appointees, also, to respect these rules; and it leads to founded, and unfounded, public perceptions that individuals and groups so-appointed do not perform public duties impartially.

It has become quite common to use the phrase ‘public service’ to refer, also, to the institution and processes that deliver such service. In academic scientific discourse, the institution is known as ‘bureaucracy’. Under this name, its origins, character and functioning have been subject of both liberal and radical sociological analysis and critique, alongside the state, of which it is regarded as a constituent part. One of the most-known of these analyses is Max Weber’s.

In Max Weber, emergence, existence of, and possession and exercising of authority by, bureaucracies in modern society is presented as “inevitable” and as “…the only way of coping with administrative requirements of large-scale social systems.” As with other institutions of the state, in Max Weber, an ‘ideal’ bureaucracy is non-partisan, and works in ways intended to protect the less powerful in society by ensuring that the powerful in society do not abuse their power in their relations with the less powerful.

It is this exercise of their authority in a non-partisan way that gives bureaucracies legitimacy, increases possibilities of acceptance of their decisions and action, thereby, securing social stability. To be able to act impartially, those in-charge of public institutions must be appointed according to merit and not because of their political allegiances; they must be able to think and act independently of politicians who form governments.

In Weber’s characterisation, an ‘ideal type’ bureaucracy does not possess only ‘charitable’ features. Bureaucrats are custodians of information and secrets of the state. This custodianship makes bureaucracies possessors of power which bureaucrats use in their relationships and interactions with governments and society at large. This may include use of state secrets in order to influence government, sometimes in ways that serve interests of bureaucracies and individual bureaucrats, and in ways that are inimical to democracy and popular will.

Weber’s discussion of bureaucracies makes possible two conclusions. The first is that, without a non-partisan and neutral bureaucracy, order and stability would be difficult to achieve in ‘large scale social systems’. The second is that, in order for a bureaucracy to perform its functions, the public must be assured that appointment of bureaucrats is above reproach. This would give the public a sense that, such a bureaucracy is independent, non-partisan and neutral, thereby securing the public’s respect for its authority. Without recognition and respect of the authority and independence of a bureaucracy, it becomes both a victim and source of public disorder.

In passing: in situations, such as Lesotho’s, however, where they are weak and lack the power to ‘act in accordance with their own interests’, bureaucracies become more instruments of dominant class rule than act in their own interests. In addition, individual bureaucrats become puppets of leaders of political parties who appoint them. Despite the not-so-sanguine views of bureaucracy — the view that Karl Marx held about bureaucracies as instruments for the pursuit and advance of self-interest; and the fears that Max Weber had about the threats that bureaucracies pose for democracy — a number of factors have often militated against bureaucracies developing into consummate enemies of the public and public interest.

These factors include the fact that, class domination is not always one-way: sometimes it is resisted, and such resistance, sometimes, forces change in the manner in which public institutions serve the public. Also, to be able to succeed in ‘representing class-rule as general-will’, bureaucracies and other institutions of state have to act in ways that make such representation credible. This may have the effect of not ending class domination but of making it less intolerable, thereby maintaining some public confidence in public institutions and their processes.

Public acts of resistance to bureaucracy’s attempts to impose its will on society, and public institutions’ own acts aimed at securing public confidence, suggest that the public have some idea of a bureaucracy that should serve them, and how it should do so. This is the bureaucracy that sociologists and others have tried to theorise and characterise. Briefly, a bureaucracy that society wish for is one appointment to which is based on merit. It is made up of levels and offices among which power is distributed in a hierarchical manner.

Roles and functions of each office, or branch of bureaucracy, are clearly defined and separated to clarify accountability, to guarantee freedom and independence from political interference, and to minimise conflict, or duplication of effort, and thereby increase chances of efficiency. In office, bureaucrats are expected to separate personal affairs from public affairs, and to desist from arbitrary conduct in serving the public. It is recognised that, to be able to serve the public in ways that the public expect, a bureaucracy should be stable, and bureaucrats should have a security of tenure which is not threatened by changes of government.

To that end, those appointed to bureaucracy should be guaranteed “ . . . life-long tenure and status; have a fixed salary and retirement pension; and a vocation and a sense of loyalty to career and office”. Secrecy and confidentiality around how decisions are made, and which individual said what during discussions leading to decisions, are regarded as important because they are seen as guaranteeing bureaucrats with protection in cases where their ‘non-partisan’ decisions and action may attract reprisals by those affected.

As Marx said, “ . . . [t]he universal spirit of bureaucracy is secrecy, the mystery, which it secures internally by hierarchy, and against external groups…” Crucially, ‘external groups’ against who public servants can use their monopoly over secrecy and confidentiality include politicians who form governments.

Establishment of Colonial Bureaucracy in Basutoland—a Brief History

Basotho society in which colonial public institutions were established possessed its own public institutions, such as pitso, khotla, and so on. Colonial institutions that the British established in Lesotho after they colonised the territory either replaced pre-colonial ones or worked alongside colonial ones. This point needs to be raised as a way of making two reminders.

First, that, as currently constituted, the public service is a received institution whose working and operation in Lesotho’s post-colonial setting will continue to be a problem if principles on which it was founded by society of origin are not understood. Second, there’s need to be certain of the extent to which pre-colonial public institutions continue to have influence on how society perceives public service and public service institutions, leading, perhaps, to shortcomings identifiable in these institutions.

An important factor behind Britain’s colonisation of Basotho in the late 1860s was the need to establish and maintain political stability in the Mohokare valley. It is for this reason that Basutoland was known as a ‘law-and-order’ colony. Accordingly, the origins of Lesotho’s modern public service lie in the appointment, (by the Cape Colony—to which Basotho’s territory was annexed in 1871) of magistrates in the early 1870s.

The law that authorised the annexation of Lesotho to the Cape Colony, the Basutoland Annexation Bill of 1871, established four districts in Lesotho: Thaba Bosiu, Berea, Leribe and Cornet Spruit. With the promulgation of the Bill, each of these districts was “…now subject to the jurisdiction and authority of the…Resident Magistrates of the Districts”. Primarily, Resident Magistrates carried out judicial functions, but they also performed, or were in-charge of, administrative and financial functions of their districts.

As the first man to be appointed Basutoland’s Chief Magistrate, Charles Duncan Griffith, put it, appointment of Magistrates signalled a singularly important moment in the establishment of colonial government: “…the four magistrates having entered office, the real [colonial] work of governing the Basutos commenced”. Consistent with Lesotho’s position as a law-and-order colony, a police force, the Basutoland Mounted Police, was one of the first public institutions to be established, in 1872. Among the earliest Basotho appointments were sons of Moshoeshoe I — Nehemia, Tšekelo, and George. In his report of 1873, the first year of Cape Colony rule, Chief Magistrate Griffith described the three men as “…staunch supporters of the British Government…”

In years and decades that followed, more sons of chiefs joined, and dominated the senior police ranks well into the post-colonial period. The bureaucracy established at the commencement of colonial rule appears to have grown little in the five years between 1873, when it was first established, and 1878, the last year of Cape Colony ‘peaceful’ rule over Basutoland.  We gain an impression of the state of Basutoland public service from a letter that the Governor’s Agent, Commandant J. H. Bowker, wrote in 1878, to his superiors in the Cape Colony. The picture that emerged from Bowker’s description was one of a “…small and makeshift central administration”.

As Governor’s Agent, he was overburdened because his responsibilities included being Chief Magistrate and an officer to who all appeals went; he had to supervise four Resident Magistrates but could not do so effectively because he could not leave his office without generating a serious backlog of work. The Thaba Bosiu Resident Magistrate, stationed closest to him, in Maseru, also doubled as a government accountant; in that capacity he examined all Resident Magistrates’ financial records, including — and against good practice — accounts of his own office.

Following Bowker’s letter to his superiors, in 1878, the Moorosi Rebellion broke out, early in 1879, and it was immediately followed by the outbreak of the War of Guns, in September, 1880. Moorosi Rebellion broke out when Moorosi resisted what he saw as colonial officials’ usurpation of his administrative and judicial powers.
The War of Guns broke out when a section of Basotho, dubbed ‘rebels’, refused to hand-over their guns to the Cape Colony government, thereby contravening the Peace Preservation Act, of 1878.

In both wars, Basutoland magistrates sided with the forces of the Cape Colony government. In the War of Guns, a section of Basotho — dubbed ‘loyals ’— co-operated with the Cape Colony by handing-over their guns to the colonial government. Whereas Moorosi rebellion ended with defeat of Moorosi, in the War of Guns, the Cape Colony was unable to defeat Basotho.

Instead, Cape Colony government found itself in a situation where it had to reach a settlement which was interpreted as favouring the rebels at the expense of the loyals. This interpretation was borne out by actual experiences in which the Cape Colony and Basutoland governments stood-by, impotently, or were perceived to be standing-by, impotently, as rebel chiefs punished those of their subjects who had co-operated with colonial authorities.

Many magistrates and other colonial officials in Basutoland felt that these developments put them in an untenable situation where they had to co-operate with the rebels, and they were unable to protect the loyals who had stood by them during the war. Accordingly, some magistrates and officials resigned, or asked for transfer. Among those who left was Griffith himself; as the first Governor’s Agent and Chief Magistrate, he was the most experienced colonial public servant in Basutoland.

Griffith’s resignation and those of other magistrates, clerks, and other officials meant that, in the two years, from 1881 to 1883, during which the Cape Colony government was trying to re-establish order, “ . . . almost all magistrates and clerks involved were. . . . relatively inexperienced in Basuto politics . . .” It also meant that, when imperial rule was established over Lesotho, in 1884, the British government officials had to start re-building Basutoland’s public service from scratch.

To be Continued Next Week . . .

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