ANC’s tiresome quest for the secret formula

2010-08-28 00:00

EXPECT President Jacob Zuma to return from China overflowing with enthusiasm for the developmental state. Expect his nephews, nieces, second cousins and the extended family of his minor wives soon to parlay this and their political connections into massive personal wealth.

After all, favourite nephew Khulubuse Zuma moved from financial obscurity to billionaire status on a raft of deals in just two years. No business acumen needed if one has a surname that spells Open Sesame to one’s new Chinese and South Korean friends.

Don’t expect Zuma to reconcile such contradictions. These are the parameters within which the Zuma administration operates: a faddish embrace of the latest supposed panacea for economic growth while, simultaneously, tolerating corruption, patronage and incompetence that make economic mediocrity a certainty. As Greg Mills points out in his sobering new book, Why Africa Is Poor, economic growth does not demand a secret formula. There is no need to journey afar to find and unravel the blueprint.

“A lot of energy is spent gathering best-practice examples from around the world, but these are seldom adapted and applied,” writes Mills, who heads the Oppenheimer-funded Brenthurst Foundation, whose remit is to strengthen African economic performance.

Instead of just steadily improving productivity, competitiveness, labour flexibility, skills and infrastructure, the Tripartite Alliance has decided that the developmental state is the missing answer. South Africa’s government must play a bigger role in devising and implementing industrial policy, “even though paradoxically [government] capacity is weak and difficult to create,” writes Mills.

Mills is being generous. To rely on an inept South African government to ramp up economic growth is to invite slow-burning failure and a massive increase in corruption. Patronage will be the main engine for delivery in a country saddled with a public sector rotten with deployed political cadres instead of professional civil servants.

What is interesting about the diverse array of successfully transformed economies that Mills cites, is the lack of ideology behind success. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and then the financial tsunami that hit the United States, nations are willing to do anything that works, rather than try to apply ideological templates. While fast-growing economies that have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps share certain characteristics — including a highly productive work force, and at least initially a low-wage economy — Mills persuasively identifies the one thing that outweighs all others. It is leadership.

Whatever the historical scars that Africa carries, whatever the problems of access to markets, poor infrastructure, expertise and the dependency culture induced by the aid industry, the continent is poor because its leaders have made that choice. Time after time, African leaders have made bad choices for their countries because their primary motivation was personal and financial self-interest.

Mills partly blames an international community that has acted on the worst combination possible of altruism and self-interest. The “ruinous, self-interested” decisions by Africa’s “big men”, however, can mainly be blamed on the lack of democracy or on single-party dominance.

Zuma knows that nationalisation of the mines, and “radical action against the strategic enemy, white minority capital” are not the solutions to South Africa’s problems claimed by ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema this week. But he tolerates this damaging nonsense in the same way that he tolerates tenderpreneurs and nepotism, because it works for him. South Africa’s pseudo-revolutionaries wear old grudges on their sleeves. They still flick through dog-eared copies of Das Kapital, searching for the clues to economic salvation.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world, including much of Africa, is moving on, finding pragmatic answers. It’s not rocket science and there is no Holy Grail.

• Greg Mills, Why Africa Is Poor (and what Africans­ can do about it), Penguin, 2010.

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