In the private office: an insider’s view of the workings of government – Fellows’ seminar by Rob Turrell

1 September 2020

“We are in a terrible situation as a country right now. I’m horrified by the government’s response to COVID-19. How are we to understand their failure to implement their own rescue package? I believe another IMF bail-out is inevitable – I don’t see that there is an alternative. And what are we to make of the ESKOM situation and of the President’s recent communications on corruption?” said STIAS fellow Rob Turrell.

STIAS Fellow Rob Turrell during his seminar on 27 August 2020

And Turrell has some insight into the inner workings of government. He served as political adviser in a number of government ministries over a period of 15 years starting with the Ministry of Education in 2004, moving on to the Ministries of Science and Technology, and Home Affairs, then back to the Ministry of Science and Technology, and in 2018 to the Ministry of Higher Education.

“I wrote speeches for Minister Naledi Pandor for 15 years,” he said. “Luckily for me, she was a very good communicator, a skill that many of our ministers lack deeply.”

He reflected on his experience working as a political adviser in a national minister’s private office and gave details of the procedures usually unseen by the people.

“What do ministers do? They have four roles: in parliament making statements, answering questions, presenting departmental policy, initiating law; in a government department providing political leadership; in cabinet and cabinet committees taking executive decisions about government policy; and, in their party, generating party discipline and political support.”

“They are basically plucked from parliament, elevated to the status of minister but not given a job description and most have no experience of running a business or profession,” he continued. “They don’t run the departments – the Director-General does. Their main role is to provide political leadership and to fulfill their party role – the party work is always there.”

“Pandor never stopped working and was very effective.” Turrell highlighted important achievements in this period including the funding of research chairs (many held by women) as well as centres of excellence.

He described the office staff ranging from Chief of Staff, Parliamentary Liaison Officer, Administrative Secretary and Media Liaison Officer, to the protectors – the police assigned to protect the minister – “who usually know more than anyone else”.

“The advisers are political appointees, dependent on the Minister,” he added.

Toeing the party line

In discussion he highlighted the ongoing influence on the African National Congress of the concept of the National Democratic Revolution.

“Not many people know about the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) but it’s been hiding in plain sight for decades, endorsed by the ANC in its strategy and tactics document at every party conference,” he said.

“It’s based on Lenin’s 1917 theory of imperialism that attributes the growth of developed economies to the ruthless exploitation of cheap labour in colonial empires. Adapted to South Africa in the Communist Party’s Road to South African Freedom (1962), the NDR provides a compelling narrative, in PoliticsWeb in James Myburgh’s words, ‘for the subordination of black people and for the return of the land and wealth stolen from them by white people’.”

“The immediate task of the NDR was to overthrow white domination, followed by the building of a black bourgeoisie and the fundamental racial reordering of society, an Africanisation of the state and the private sector, the nationalisation of the economy, and the expropriation of the land. Once this NDR had been achieved, then the country would be ready for socialism.”

Turrell explained that the NDR is based on building a black bourgeoisie.

“We have a strong bureaucratic black bourgeoisie in the public sector,” he said. “We need to build a black industrial middle class – we can’t move on until we have this.”

“There is still too much emphasis on BEE,” he added. “It hasn’t worked.”

“In a true developmental state there is a strong alliance between the business elite and politicians. We came closest to this under Smuts – many of the state enterprises like the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, ESKOM and Sasol were built during this time. Now there is no connection between the political elite and the business sector – which doesn’t make sense.”

“Clearly not everyone in the ANC wants a socialist society but there is a strong anti-business antagonism,” he said.

“Economic policy is of particular concern at the moment, as we fall deeper into debt, and face the threat of a sovereign default.”

“But,” he added, “there seems to be no panic in the ANC. They all agree on NDR and transformation, and seem to be okay if the economy collapses in the meantime.  Why haven’t they sorted out ESKOM particularly in the COVID-19 environment? Why hasn’t there been an outcry? The implications are astonishing.”

He also touched on the role of the President.

“We have had this strange, unprecedented situation of the President talking to us for five months without us being able to engage,” he said. “Now there is his open letter about ANC corruption which could be seen as a silver lining, however, we have to ask exactly what’s going on in the ANC. It’s a very unusual situation, but it’s clear that the much-needed change must happen from within.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu




Share this post:

Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Subscribe to posts like these:

Related to this article

News categories



STIAS is a creative space for the mind.