Accepted paper:

The shaping of formal and informal bureaucratic practice in the transition to democracy in South Africa: a study of a regional department of education.


Sarah Meny-Gibert (University of the Witwatersrand)

Paper short abstract:

The paper will present empirical work on a regional education bureaucracy in South Africa, focusing on the way in which formal and informal systems of bureaucratic practice are (mutually) shaped in the administration in the context of the transition to democracy.

Paper long abstract:

The formal hierarchy of the Eastern Cape education bureaucracy in South Africa is undercut by competing informal networks: linked at first to regional networks of the apartheid-era Bantustans, these have been overlain to reflect the fragmented networks of the ruling party and its alliance partners in the region. Some of these networks are organised around the dispensing of state patronage, in which formal rules are manipulated for illegal activity. Rules may also be ignored to provide a service to a school: administrative processes are fairly broken (weak processes and corrupt practice are reinforcing), and designed with a better-resourced department in mind - ignoring them can get things done. These informal practices don't constitute a clearly defined normative and practical system adhered to or understood by all actors. The transition to democracy brought new normative practices for evaluating the appropriateness of bureaucratic action that have been adopted by many officials and which stand in contrast to the norms shaping involvement in illegal activity. Further, these informal networks are highly unstable, linked to unstable politics in the region unleashed by the process of transition to democracy. Informal institutions can appear opaque to officials outside of these networks: acting informally can be an uncertain business. Acting within the rules can mark one as obstructive to illegal interests. Lower level officials take refuge in performing bureaucratic formality: for example, staff meetings are scheduled through elaborate rituals of agenda setting. For some, these rituals become not just survival strategies, but markers of ethical practice.

panel P202
Taking rules seriously: Between formality and informality in African bureaucracies