Which way up?

2011-09-20 00:00

IT is sometimes hard to understand why edited collections are published, although they clearly provide a ready boost to the CVs of those who write for them. Like this one, with scant introduction, an absence of overall conclusions and some chapters that fail to match the advertised theme, they often appear to have been hastily assembled by over-ambitious editors. Readers have to dig deep. Nevertheless, this particular collection by 20 writers has sufficient to say about contemporary South Africa to make the effort worthwhile.

What, asks Daniel Plaatjies, an academic at the University of the Free State, is the state supposed to achieve, and how? The current record is not hopeful: Jonathan Jansen comments on “malfunction and malfeasance”; and Desmond Tutu on “managed shamble”. A consistent argument running through this book is that the success or failure of South African government depends on people; not policies, plans, road maps, strategic reviews, mandates, indabas and lekgotlas­, nor any other fancy name for endless discussion. David Everatt­ and Nolulamo Gwagwa point out that every year there appears a new big idea relating to issues that might take decades to resolve. Structure remains the magic word, not individuals or work, and the terminology and practice of the struggle remain deeply rooted. President Jacob Zuma, for instance, set up two new units in the presidency — performance monitoring and evaluation, and the national­ planning commission — but their effects have been low key. Where, runs the central question in this book, is the capacity? Where are the innovation and imagination that move a successful society forward? Above all, where is the implementation?

Current ANC orthodoxy favours the idea of the developmental state. Although this has no exclusive definition, and depends on time and place, it does imply central direction. South Africa, the various authors of this collection argue, has no chance with this model. The necessary conditions are an efficient bureaucracy­, a relatively docile civil society and a strong mandate free of political interference, conditions that some would argue are an affront to democracy. Furthermore, the bureaucracy needs to be stable and founded on merit. Professionals, writes Anthony Butler, need the authority denied to them by South Africa’s empowerment state based on patronage, a point made by several other contributors. John Luiz contrasts the investment tendencies of Asian societies with South Africa’s “predatory elite”, which in Cosatu’s opinion is auctioning the state to the best-connected bidder.

Steven Friedman makes the crucial point that South Africans need a public service with real accountability to the people that lives up to its name. Instead it presides over service delivery largely as a technical agency. People must be at the centre of the enterprise. Friedman argues that accountability is devalued in a culture of identity voting and it is well known that the list system and deployment reduce answerability to virtual invisibility. Neva Makgetla reinforces the point by adding that democracy demands a skilled and perceptive public service, deploring the personal power that is often the driving factor.

Plaatjies puts all this into broader context: the public service, lacking an agreed measure of what is virtuous, defaults to materialism. Not only this, but it does the bare minimum, write Everatt and Gwagwa, in part because the statutes under which it operates, designed to prevent corruption, also encourage risk aversion. Too much comes from the top, hidebound by protocol and with an in-built tendency to silence­ critics. The consequence has been a progressive de-skilling of the public sector in the face of political agendas. On cue, Helen Zille reminds the reader that liberation movements make a mess of democratic government.

Current-day South Africa might look rather different — less unequal, for instance — if the Reconstruction and Development Programme had been given a chance under Jay Naidoo. But infused with the arrogant disdain of eighties radicals for professional skills, it assumed capacity, lacked direction and structure, failed to deliver and collapsed. As Luiz records, it was replaced by a succession of acronyms that simply spelt out different versions of neoliberalism and the depredations of globalisation. The socioeconomic results have been catastrophic; and the current welfare state, he reckons, is a band-aid solution that legitimates the system by providing a short-term material safety net. No South African needs telling that the existing state-owned enterprises are an awful warning of a broad malaise: not one of them functions optimally, or necessarily in the national interest. Unfortunately none of the contributors analyses them in depth; but by way of contrast Luiz mentions the Fifa World Cup whose organisational success was based on focus, appropriate skills and strict external monitoring. It demonstrated, he argues, South Africa’s need to be competitive, pragmatic and realistic.

All of these qualities appear, however, to be in very short supply. Real economic growth, according to Seeraj Mohamed, has been subordinated to consumption and financial speculation, the buying and selling of assets, rather than productive investment that creates jobs, a point frequently made elsewhere by Moeletsi Mbeki. Richard Levin highlights skills shortages and organisational shortcomings. He also criticises accumulation from above and wisely emphasises the importance of growth from below, with people-driven processes that balance development with socioeconomic­ equity. What he describes as the Faustian pact between black economic empowerment and big business, particularly the mining houses, has accelerated the decline of manufacturing and marginalised the unions.

The challenge of this book is to provide a conclusion. The evidence presented suggests that the ANC’s culture of deployment on the basis of party (or worse, factional) loyalty and its nurture of a capitalist elite are essentially opposed to the development required by the mass of South Africa’s people. It has nurtured a public service many of whose staff, strangely in the land of Ubuntu, completely fail to understand the true nature of their task, seeing it instead in essentially egocentric terms. While the state has achieved a great deal in infrastructural terms — housing, water and electricity — this is not matched by the necessary economic vision. Perversely a liberation movement has not only lost touch, but seems at odds with basic national need, wedded to archaic philosophy, policy and practice. Future inheritance? This book spells out the latter well enough, but about the future it is frustratingly and perhaps wisely reticent. Maybe Graham Bloch’s description of state schools — operating he reckons at over 60% dysfunctionality — as sinkholes is sufficient.

Future Inheritance: Building State Capacity in Democratic South Africa edited by Daniel Plaatjies is published by Jacana.

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