In honour of Pieter Pretorius

31 Aug 2023 | By Shanil Haricharan
Pieter Pretorius
31 Aug 2023 | By Shanil Haricharan

Roses and thistles: In honour of Pieter Pretorius, a model public servant

In 2010, I had the honour of meeting the outstanding Pieter Pretorius. Our meeting occurred during a National Treasury Technical Assistance Unit (TAU) working on the newly constituted Presidency Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME). As the head of Corporate Services, Pieter bravely took on the arduous task of building a new department. He had shown incredible determination and resourcefulness as he navigated through unfamiliar territory in the lack of a handbook or official guidance.

I was reminded of his stunning comparison a year later when the TAU reflected on the great lessons learnt through the founding of DPME. With a charming touch of humour and wit, Pieter compared his enormous task to the complex process of obtaining a box of diverse vehicle components and expecting to assemble them to build a car. In his own words:

"The instruction manual is in German, and you are not provided with any tools or mechanics to complete the task. You are also not provided a budget and must go in search of a sponsor, who is also the sole source of the necessary tools. Not only will the Auditor General (AG) examine whether you correctly assembled the car, but you should also provide proof that you immediately entered races and completed each race successfully without damaging anything. You should have always finished in the top 10."

Undaunted by these obstacles, Pieter persevered in establishing the DPME under the wise guidance of Dr Sean Phillips, the DPME's Director General (Dr Phillips is also an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the Nelson Mandela School). DPME stood tall and persevered in the face of uncertainty and challenges faced by various new departments. Pieter, a driven individual, eagerly accepted this challenge, armed with extensive knowledge of government administrative systems. He was a remarkable public manager, far from ordinary, who approached this task with a spirit that went beyond simple rule-following. His strategy was to bravely venture into uncharted territory, seeking novel ways to establish the department while remaining mindful of the constraints imposed by a rule-bound environment.

The reflection session case study at TAU was titled Roses and Thistles, a name that reflected the profound significance and delicate balance required in the pursuit of establishing a department in the South African government. While roses are lovely flowers associated with happy occasions, thistles are prickly and can grow into troublesome weeds regardless of their appearance.
Pieter was a magnificent rose. He had a remarkable ability to navigate the prickly challenges with a calm and modest demeanour. The DPME will rise and flourish as a department over the next five years, shining brightly as a beacon of inspiration for all others to follow.

A few years later, in 2016, it was a pleasure to have Pieter in my Public Leadership course on the Master of Development Policy and Practice at UCT's Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance. In the presence of his contemporaries from the African continent's public and development sectors, he embarked on a journey of knowledge and growth, dialoguing on theory and practice in understanding the continent's development challenges, particularly public institutions. During classroom interactions, Pieter effortlessly displayed his vast reservoir of wisdom. His remarkable humility, a defining feature of his personality, only added to the brilliance of his contributions. As his coach, I witnessed his personal growth and his unwavering passion and dedication to achieving the noble NDP goal of building a capable state, even at the expense of his commitments.

This endearing rose, however, did not wilt; driven by unwavering motivation, he bravely confronted the plethora of challenges that plagued the realm of public service. In his course paper on leadership and governance, he delved deeply into the heart of these issues, shedding light on commanding leadership styles, senior managers' poor communication, the suffocating grip of bureaucracy and hierarchy, the dominance of compliance over innovation, the pervasive culture of entitlement, and the insidious presence of political interference within the administration. These challenges persistently afflict our government. Yet, the dream of Batho Pele principle shines brightly, forever etched in the hearts of dedicated individuals like Pieter. Though his passing leaves a void, his admirable contributions shall forever be woven into the tapestry of a developing public service, steadily growing stronger with time.

"Pieter was an excellent colleague at the Presidency. When he later joined the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance to do a masters to branch away from the administrative side of government to the operational side, his intelligence and diligence were admirable. His results were excellent," added Emeritus Professor Alan Hirsch.

The Nelson Mandela School is filled with immense pride and profound honour to count Pieter amongst our cherished alumni. In paying tribute to Pieter’s contribution to public service one is reminded of Nelson Mandela, a beacon of selflessness and service. We honour his words: "Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – these noble qualities, accessible to every soul, form the bedrock of one's spiritual journey."

As the Nelson Mandela School, we extend our condolences to Pieter’s family, friends, and colleagues.

Farewell, beloved comrade Pieter - rest well, noble soul!