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Resignations and red tape bring frustration to South Africa’s DST

Former and current staff at South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology have expressed frustration with unfilled vacancies and growing administrative burdens amid a spate of high-profile resignations. Almost one in five of its posts is vacant.

Two of the department’s six deputy directors-general have resigned recently: Tommy Makhode, former deputy director-general for institution planning and support, and Thomas Auf der Heyde, former DDG for research development and support.

While neither responded to queries about why they chose to leave, Research Africa can confirm that they are among a number of relatively senior employees who have left the DST this year. Vacant positions are not being filled because of a hiring freeze across government.

The freeze is part of government’s austerity measures to curb public spending and an onerous state salary bill. However, a number of sources who left the department this year said that the freeze had damaged morale, significantly increased the workload of remaining employees, and caused stagnation.

According to the department’s latest annual report, 19 staff left the organisation between 1 April 2017 and 31 March 2018, accounting for 9 per cent of its 428 staff. Fourteen of the departures resigned. The DST then had a vacancy rate of 13 per cent, which the annual report’s authors note is growing. The top salary tiers, which are populated by people with the highest skills and greatest responsibilities, are those with the most vacancies. 

This week, the department confirmed that as of 31 October 2018 its vacancy rate was 17 per cent.

This has damaged staff morale and highly skilled people are leaving the department. A former staff member who spoke on condition of anonymity said: “The working environment has become more compromised with the freeze on posts. Everyone has to do 20 per cent more work, and that’s not evenly distributed.”

Another former staffer said the hiring freeze has been detrimental to the institutional culture. “Because positions are frozen, you don’t get a dilution of ideas,” the source said. “The culture is frustrating.”

Other staffers still employed in the department complained about the increased workload, and the expectation to deliver the same output—or more—with fewer people and resources.

Tensions brought by the staffing shortage are compounded by the additional governance measures aimed at stymying corruption in government. The DST, with its annual budget of approximately R7.8 billion (US$540 million), is the golden child of South Africa’s national departments. It continues to receive clean audits from the auditor-general, a rarity in a government beleaguered by maladministration and poor governance.

However, despite this track record the DST has not been spared the government’s clampdown on corruption. “The response to corruption is to ramp up the compliance administration, and it is applied evenly across all departments,” said one source, who had worked at the DST in the top two tiers of its employee scale. “So even a department like ours, where there have never been allegations, we’re subject to the same compliance measures.”

The DST told Research Africa that because of budgetary constraints, all vacant posts had been declared unfunded. However, the minister had intervened in light of crucial vacancies, with essential posts in the process of being filled. 

"I have emphasised the importance of looking at our vacancies in light of budget constraints. We will be finalising this process as we conclude our Annual Performance Plan," said science and technology minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, who has been in the position since February.

The minister says she is aware of the low morale among staff, having received a report on the issue when she joined the department.