Healthy handover

February 24, 1995

Karen Mac Gregor witnesses the dawn of provincial cooperation. Around 80 people crowded into the community hall at Sonop, a small town in the sparsely populated North West province of South Africa. A meeting of public servants had been called to elect a management team to begin setting up a non-racial welfare system for the district - and it bristled with symbolism.

The town, whose name means "sun up", was hosting an event which typifies the dawn of South Africa's democracy: getting people together to build a new state and society. It is by no means a simple process.

Sonop was created in the 1930s as a settlement of poor white Afrikaners. It developed an extensive set of welfare institutions around the town. Now the government has an almost identical commitment to improve the standard of living of black South Africans.

Many of the black and white people had never met before, and would not have dreamed of doing so a few years ago. Some came from the National Party state bureaucracy, some were administrators in the former homeland of Bophuthatswana, and a few were from non-governmental organisations.

Francie Lund, a social scientist from the University of Natal, and Leila Patel, one of the country's leading welfare consultants, were struggling to control the sometimes rebellious event.

They were there as members of one of many strategic management teams set up to begin integrating the myriad bureaucracies of apartheid, and to analyse service provision and ensure that it continued during the transition to new government.

They are among hundreds of academics, politically opposed to the former government, who are helping set up the new one.

The Sonop meeting was the first of five in different districts to create district Transitional Management Committees (TMCs), which are taking over from the strategic management teams and decentralising services to hand over to a new provincial welfare administration.

"It is an exercise in participative management and amalgamating services at a district level," says Dr Patel. In the case of North West, a new province, it means integrating six administrations - three departments for whites, Indians and coloureds, the former Transvaal Provincial Administration, the Bophuthatswana administration, and a part of the province which used to belong in the Cape.

The idea was to elect, with as much civil service participation as possible, a team that not only included representatives from inside and outside the different administrations, but was also balanced in terms of race, gender, local knowledge and expertise.

"The only thing we could do was use the day to get people to know each other. We taught some skills in hard lobbying, and then gave people an hour in which to lobby candidates for the team," Ms Lund recalled.

"At first there was strong resistance. Several of the groups said the exercise was impossible, and at times we felt that too. We pointed out that if people did not vote sensibly, the provincial minister of health and welfare would select the team."

Everybody nominated five or six people, and the names of the top nine were announced in order of the number of votes they received. After more negotiations a six-member team was decided. "After all the whinges and resistance, it worked like a charm."

All five district TMCs are now in place, and a member of each has been elected to a coordinating provincial TMC.

Ms Lund was approached to join the North West's strategic management team dealing with welfare on the strength of research she had conducted into the operation of the country's old welfare system.

"Not long before reform was announced in 1990 I saw in a flash that academics on the left hadn't a clue about what goes on in government, and that unless we learned we would be at a massive disadvantage.

"I raised R12,000 (Pounds 2,000) from the Human Sciences Research Council, got in a car and drove around South Africa interviewing officials in all of the country's 19 welfare departments." The report she produced was called The Way Welfare Works: Structures, Spending, Staffing and Social Work in the South African Welfare Bureaucracies.

Dr Patel lectured at the universities of the Western Cape and the Wi****ersrand before travelling to Yale to study further. She is the author of a book on restructuring welfare, and is currently working in Pretoria as a manager of the national welfare restructuring process, charged with writing a White Paper on welfare.

Both found themselves on the road again after joining the North West's welfare strategic management team. For two days a week for several months they travelled across the country to join a group of 11 people who comprised representatives of the old state bureaucracies and consultants.

The strategic team's task was to bring together people from very different administrations, to analyse what service provision exists, to identify places where there is under or over-provision, and to set up an equitable system while ensuring that existing services continue.

It is a complex task. Not only do the departments being brought into a unitary system have very different ways of operating, but the skewed distribution of resources means that people, facilities and equipment are concentrated in pockets of privilege and need somehow to be moved to areas of need.

"In North West, 90 per cent of people are African but nearly 90 per cent of welfare provision went to white people, who comprise only 5.5 per cent of the population. In 'white' parts of the province, the ratio of social workers to the population is 1:3,500, while in former Bophuthatswana it is 1:35,000," said Ms Lund.

"The power of the team was in confronting inequalities through facts and figures, rather than talking about ideologies and beliefs. The facts helped people to see gross inequalities, and to understand that there was little point in resisting change."

At first there was a lot of surface friendliness among members of the team, but there were also hidden tensions. There were several people who knew they would be in competition for jobs.

Often the "outside" members of the team had to mediate, or force issues along. "We had to cut across resistance to change and stress that in the new South Africa there were new principles. We often had to agree to take the rap for decisions to get people to co-operate. We had strong support from the provincial minister of health and welfare, which was critical to our success.

"We would have to make intelligent decisions on how to solve problems or crises as they emerged. It was a wild and woolly situation, with services sometimes breaking down in the confusion of amalgamation and shifting provincial boundaries."

The strategic management team has now completed its situation analysis. Now the TMCs have been asked to come up with plans of action for their districts.

Senior managers for the new provincial health and welfare department have been appointed, and they will be advised by the provincial TMC. The district TMCs will continue to manage welfare locally, and will gradually be absorbed into the new nationl administration.

The national management team is working with task groups on policy issues, and by June will produce a White Paper setting up a new welfare system for the new South Africa.

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