State a barrier to growth

2011-02-12 14:01

Two purges of top civil servants under the ANC government have crippled its ability to deliver services, Chippy Olver, a former director-general of environmental affairs and tourism, told a forum organised by former public enterprises minister Alec Erwin.

“Under the ANC government there have been two complete revolutions in the civil service – Thabo Mbeki pushing out the Reconstruction and Development Programme office, and then Jacob Zuma sweeping out another lot,” Olver said.

“We are fuelling instability instead of institutional memory. It takes years to build a functioning department in the public service, but it can be wrecked in a week.”

Erwin presided over a week-long analysis of what it would take to become a developmental state – which is government and ANC policy – and concluded that the current obstacles were enormous and made worse by a succession of government decisions.

The event was an indictment of major aspects of ANC rule, but also perhaps an early indication that people in South Africa’s establishment – or at least those who recently lost power – are beginning to face up to their own mistakes, and to what is necessary to bring the economy to the level at which it should and could be.

One reason for this new soul- searching was given by Joel Netshitenzhe, formerly right-hand man to President Mbeki and regarded as a one-man brains trust for the ANC, when he referred to South Africa’s “unsustainable macro-social environment” at current economic growth rates.

Netshitenzhe said growth was on track in reducing joblessness between 2003 and 2008, falling from 31% to 23%. If that trend had continued, unemployment would have fallen to 14% by 2014, which would have been a remarkable success.

But the financial meltdown of 2008 showed a devastating weakness in South Africa’s economic structure.

While some Western economies fell by around 6% in 2009, their employment dropped by only a quarter of that.

Here, thanks to a sound banking system, we had almost experienced no direct effect of the crisis.

As a result, our economy shrank by only 1.8%. The fall was due to the effect on our exports to countries?in recession.

But employment dropped and wrecked the positive trend that had built up since 2003, putting the 14% target out of reach.

That is the “unsustainable macro-social environment” which could affect South Africa’s stability.

Olver said a developmental state had to be able to do the basics; and to deliver services efficiently and effectively, without corruption and with proper accountability.

“In some places the state stands squarely in the way of development. In Eastern Cape, for example, at every turn government is an obstacle.”

A consistent theme from Erwin and his three invited speakers over a week at the University of Cape Town was that the developmental state could not work without a professional civil service that was appointed not on the basis of political connections but as professionals based on merit.

Asked if this did not constitute a rejection of “cadre deployment” as practised by the ANC, Netshitenzhe, who is a current member of the ANC’s national executive committee, said there was nothing wrong with political parties putting forward suggested nominees, but the decisions must be taken by professionals on merit.

Two major themes of Erwin’s seminar were that South Africa did not have the conditions necessary to have a developmental state, and that politicians lacked the appropriate skills to build it.Erwin was surprisingly critical of the tripartite alliance’s advocating of a developmental state.

“It’s a dangerous mistake for government to say it’s a developmental state. It requires social cohesion and technical competence. This requires profound changes,” he said.

Erwin said that to run a developmental state the nation had to be confident in its diversity.

This was not yet true in South Africa. Stable, effective states in Europe came once they had a high degree of cohesion and tolerance of diversity.

Erwin acknowledged that both government and he personally had made a mistake in “not recognising the urgency” of getting renewable energy sources functioning in South Africa earlier.

He also implied that he was wrong to claim, while minister, that the Koeberg nuclear plant was sabotaged.But he stood by his decision to endorse the pebble-bed modular reactor, which has now been canned by government.

“It was a mistake to stop the pebble-bed reactor. It would have been a small but reliable energy source, and retained skilled workers that we have. It’s sad that we’re going to lose it, but I suppose we’ll buy the technology from China eventually,”

Erwin said.Netshitenzhe, who is now executive director of a new think tank, the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic?Reflection, focused on sectors where development and jobs would be added in the future.He saw great opportunity in the platinum metals group, especially as a catalyst for turning hydrogen into energy.

He also foresaw South Africa manufacturing a large number of products currently imported from China including ­cellphones, plastic and rubber products and household appliances.He criticised trade unions for negotiating small companies out of the market, using the example of factories in Newcastle.

There, workers had defied the South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union to accept lower wages so that a company could be saved and they could keep their jobs.

This pointed to the need for good leadership.But he agreed with the other speakers that “wholesale changes in management in the civil service, when political principals change, do not assist in building a developmental state”.

To build a developmental state, it had to be insulated from corruption and political favouritism through appropriate modes of recruitment and promotion.

Erwin’s first speaker, Dr Nkosana Moyo, the chief operating officer of the African Development Bank, said that sub-Saharan Africa by and large did not have the capacity to deliver because “we appoint ministers in areas they know absolutely nothing about”.

He argued that politicians should be rewarded for winning elections with seats in Parliament and other perks, but Cabinet should be appointed from people with sufficient expertise.

“What is wrong with making a successful Nigerian ex-minister of finance the minister of finance in Zimbabwe?”

He compared African civil services unfavourably with India.

“Indian civil services are very technical. It’s their job to project-manage the decisions taken by the executive.”

The African practice since the end of colonialism had been to have a so-called “big man” president who controlled everything, but this was not African tradition, Moyo said.African chiefs traditionally operated more like board chairmen, advised by a team of advisers.

“The chief was not a tyrant or a technocrat,” he said. Moyo called on African states to amend their systems to take into account the problems they had discovered since decolonisation.

» Matisonn is the international adviser for the Media Commission 

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