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SA labour productivity at its lowest in 46 years


The inaugural lecture of Professor Edmund Ferreira (Business Management) (second from right) took place on 23 October 2013 on Perspectives of administrative employees on service delivery in the public sector. With him are Prof. Valiant Clapper (Executive Dean: College of Economic and Management Sciences), Prof. Watson Ladzani (Business Management), and Prof. Rita Maré (Vice-Principal Academic: Teaching and Learning).

Why is South African labour so uncompetitive? Unisa’s Professor Edmund Ferreira of the Department of Business Management may have the answer.

According to media reports and protesting clients, service delivery of the South African public sector is generally unacceptably low. Looking at productivity in the country as a whole, statistics show that since 1967, output per worker per unit of capital in South Africa has fallen from R7 297 to R4 924 a year – a decline of 32.5%. From its peak in 1993, this measure of labour productivity has fallen by 41.2%, bringing it down to the lowest level in 46 years. South Africa today is less efficient than many of its emerging market competitors, its labour force is uncompetitive and labour productivity is much lower than that of the rest of the developing world. The big question is why?

Ferreira attempted to answer this through his inaugural lecture on 23 October 2013 titled Perspectives of administrative employees on service delivery in the public sector.

The measurable success of any institution relies primarily on a competent, well-trained and accountable workforce and one needs to remember that employees at the lowest level of the hierarchical structure form a crucial foundation in any organisation. In South Africa, the government is recognised as one of the largest employers. The ability of the state to act on pressing challenges such as poverty and service delivery, is largely defined by the capability and commitment of both the public service and its employees. It is clear that poor service delivery by local government is crippling South African businesses and impeding growth.

Government is aware of this negative situation

Speaking during the African National Congress (ANC) manifesto launch in Rustenburg on 27 February 2011, President Jacob Zuma said that the national and provincial government will intervene at local level to remedy weaknesses in terms of service delivery. Here he referred to (1) municipalities lacking capacity in management and service delivery, and (2) ANC councillors being required to tell their communities about their plans and targets to improve service delivery. This surely shows that government is aware of the negative situation.

The problem Ferreira examined pertains to the employees in the public sector in Gauteng not performing to their optimum level. The employees included administrative support staff members working as administrative or filing clerks, receptionists, typists or data capturers, secretaries, office managers, executive secretaries, personal assistants and telephone operators. Although there are many factors that influence productivity, Ferreira investigated the level of job satisfaction, the motivation of these employees, and their skills levels. His analysis sought to determine whether the support given by government is acceptable and also determine the level of satisfaction experienced by the employees. A computer skills test was also administered to determine whether the employees are actually capable of performing their jobs productively as was described in job descriptions. Some major problems identified points at pervasive poor service delivery in the Gauteng government.

An empirical survey by Ferreira focused on perceptions of administrative employees regarding job satisfaction and motivational factors in the workplace. At a later stage, another empirical survey and practical test were done to evaluate the office work related knowledge and the practical computer literacy skills of the employees. The results show that employees were generally satisfied with their job environment and other job factors. The practical skills tests revealed a very low level of competency in general. It also emerged that respondents do not have the typing and correct keyboard skills to be productive.

Public service still in a process of transformation

The South African public service is still in a process of transformation, pressured by high expectations from management as well as from the nation, its client. “Expectations set are high, and the temptation must be resisted to borrow existing ideas and experience from other countries, which might not be appropriate for our situation. Even prior to the first democratic election in 1994, structural and administrative culture adjustments to the public service were urgently needed. Although a number of measures have been taken to improve service delivery, the outcomes are varied. A systematic service culture is perhaps still absent,” says Ferreira. He points out that poor performance may be due to factors such as the continuing pace of externally imposed change, chronic uncertainties and anxieties about amalgamation of different public sectors, and externally imposed contradictions and constraints, such as the balancing of budgets against the pressure not to dismiss any employees. Lack of leadership experience in handling the political–administrative interface is a further negative factor.

There is no doubt that a productive administrative workforce benefits the employer and ultimately portrays a positive image of the particular organisation, in this case the South African public sector, to its clients. Hence, Ferreira urges the importance of moving swiftly with change. “The workplace is rapidly changing and the South African public service should keep abreast of changes such as the use of technology to ensure that its administrative workforce is suitably equipped to meet the demands of the South African public.”

*Article by Kirosha Naicker

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