Revelations at the Nugent commission investigating the South African Revenue Service, once the crown jewel of public sector competence, have been jarring. But not all of it was surprising given the steady exodus of experienced staff from the agency in recent years.
It almost risked becoming mundane: the settled narrative was one of gross incompetence, galvanising government critics and silencing its defenders. But none of that is really news.
Then along came Mmamathe Makhekhe-Mokhuane, Sars’s chief officer for digital information services & technology, and definitively gave this parade of failure a poster child. Perhaps it was nerves, but she made a terrible mess of her interviews both to the media and at the commission.
Yet, amid the headlines of collapsing Sars systems, are we asking the right questions? For example, will we hear from Tau Mashigo, the former Sars chief information officer, who left the position in 2017 (and who was briefly acting chief officer for digital information services & technology in 2016)? He was there for many years and several technological improvements at Sars happened under his watch. Today he is Sars group executive for service delivery.
Why was no handover done? Was there a handover? Makhekhe-Mokhuane claims the many things she is expected to answer happened before her tenure. Well, the person who was in charge is still at Sars. Don’t they talk to each other?
Makhekhe-Mokhuane occupied not one, but at least three government CIO positions. A CIO is a serious, senior role — one where you at the very least ask what is going on inside an organisation. If the board wants to know what is happening with IT, the CEO looks to the CIO to establish that. Given the current wave of IT modernisation as we shift gear to more cloud-native methodologies, it’s a crucial executive position. CIO roles are so demanding and multi-faceted that the title is even becoming a stepping stone to the CEO’s office, so it’s as potent as being a chief financial officer or chief operating officer.
And yet an executive who has occupied several CIO roles couldn’t answer basic questions. Instead, she rattled off the buzzwords hacks like me use to sound savvy. Of course, I was never paid the rates Makhekhe-Mokhuane earned. But I would have done a better job faking my way through the interviews than she did.
This can’t be left in isolation. In an era where modernisation is crucial for operational success, South Africa’s public sector CIOs appear to be hugely lacking. There are a few stars, but I can count them on one hand. Many others appear to be either incompetent or hamstrung by incompetent leaders (to quote a someone I interviewed recently, if a CIO doesn’t have the support of their CEO, they might as well go fishing).
Mainstream reporting of the Sars IT saga is missing this point and has already moved on. I suspect that the country is largely oblivious to the symptomatic seriousness of Makhekhe-Mokhuane’s blundering.
There is an IT leadership deficit among government technologists. Makhekhe-Mokhuane’s interview just galvanised that.
This doesn’t even touch on government’s IT policies or how the oversight of government IT functions seem to be fractured across multiple agencies all vying for political power. It is perhaps the crux of the problem: government CIOs might be keeping executive fiefdoms, so as to fit in with the patronage and rent-seeking networks inside the ANC that sustain its support among its power brokers. ANC cadres appear to rule by fear and seniority to mask their shortcomings (seen in full effect at Transnet). This is the exact opposite of what should be happening among IT modernisation projects.
Makhekhe-Mokhuane’s interviews were funny and shocking. But we risk missing that they may be symptomatic of a much bigger and more widespread problem. Maybe we should cast that net wider and really see what SA’s public technologists are up to.
- James Francis is a freelance writer