Start main page content

Meet WSG’s Chair in Public Governance: Professor Robert Van Niekerk

- Kemantha Govender

The WSG’s Chair in Public Governance, Professor Robert Van Niekerk, is intent on bringing the social policy dimension to the study of public governance.

Van Niekerk who joined the School in August is a Professor in Public Governance and researches, teaches and supervises in the areas of social policy with a specific focus on social solidarity, social citizenship and the public good; the universalisation of health care and the history of social democratic thought and black intellectuals in South Africa.

The new Chair says his energy will also be directed towards building a programme of research, teaching and supervision in social policy embedded in public governance frameworks. This will include examining the governance implications for establishing universal forms of health care provision.

Van Niekerk’s current research projects in development for funding include a comparative international research project on ‘Cultures of Social Solidarity and the Public Good’ with scholars based at the University of Havana, Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo and the Catholic University of Luanda and an international comparative research project on ‘Inequalities in Health and Education and the Public Good’ with scholars based in India, UK, Angola, Mozambique, Bangladesh and South Africa. 

He will also look at the evolution of policy thinking in South Africa on social democracy and the establishment of a re-distributive welfare state that can lock the middle-class into the provision of public goods such as a national health service and a single, comprehensive system of education.

“Public governance to me means the implementation of value-laden policies which direct public resources and its consequences, normatively speaking, for addressing social inequality and realising the public good. It is also for me about the apparatus of policy implementation including the role of trained civil servants and the quality of their expertise and strategic orientation in executing policy designs that aim to serve the public good” said Van Niekerk.

He used the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital in Cape Town as an illustration of good public governance at an institutional level. He said the institution caters for the paediatric health care needs of the working class and poor on the Cape Flats in the Western Cape but the middle class are also fully invested in the hospital and its public role.

“The hospital has amongst the best concentration of paediatric expertise in the country and Africa and is structured and managed in a way that is oriented to active community involvement in the organisation of health care provision at the hospital, meeting the needs of people from all walks of life, noting also that a primary orientation of key medical staff and management at the hospital  is towards a commitment to social justice.

“This ‘locking in’ of the middle-class into public health care provision with the working class and poor is an illustration  of where the policy agenda should be going in public governance reform as resources are directed at strengthening high-quality public goods provided by the state,” said Van Niekerk.

Van Niekerk observed that WSG provided an excellent space for students to reflect on the quality of governance in South Africa and whether it serves its intended purpose and how they could be better equipped to meet governance imperatives in their workplace. He feels it is also an important space for preparing public servants through scholarly engagement to better understand the relationship between economic and social policy in the governance system and its impact on social delivery and social outcomes in education and health, amongst others.

Van Niekerk said studying at the WSG is also about aligning conceptual, theoretical and methodological aspects of public governance and social policy in ways that deepen the practice and realisation of social citizenship and agenda’s concerned with inequality and social change rather than the ameliorative policy agenda that has come to be associated with poverty-reduction, notwithstanding the short-term importance of the latter.

 “Public servants have the opportunity to innovatively connect with the concerns of the wider social community and I feel privileged to make a contribution with colleagues to that objective through my research and teaching at the School,” he added.

Van Niekerk holds a BA (English) & BA Hons (Industrial Sociology) from the University of Cape Town, an MSc (Social Policy) from the London School of Economics (LSE) and an MPhil and DPhil (Comparative Social Policy) from the University of Oxford. He was a holder of the LSE Students Union Anti-Apartheid Scholarship.  

He has co-edited special issues and published (and co-authored) journal articles in Social Policy and Administration, the South African Medical Journal; Health Policy and Planning; Transformation and the Journal of African American History as well as co-edited volumes on the politics of South African health care reform and authored articles on social democracy, social citizenship and the African National Congress. 

He has secured research grants (and been invited to participate in research projects funded by) from institutions including the Department for International Development, the Economic and Social Research Council (UK), the Mellon Foundation and the World Health Organisation.