The state of the state

2011-11-05 09:55

Post-apartheid South Africa is a contrasting tale of progress and stagnation, and of inexplicable mishaps.

Many senior officials in the public service have been suspended. One has been fired and some will apparently soon suffer a similar fate.

Without officials to provide social services, the public service in some parts of the country has gone without resources. More than 60% of pupils in the Eastern Cape hadn’t received stationery by June.

All this belies the developmental role intended for the post-apartheid state. Could it be that challenges it encountered were essentially inevitable, and the post-apartheid government was blind-sighted to them?

Was this oversight a reflection of a poor understanding of the nature of the post-apartheid state itself? Did the ruling party ascribe intentions to the post-apartheid state that were incongruent with its resource base and capacity?

In an attempt to answer these and other related questions, the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection’s (Mistra’s) research project, “The Evolution of the South African State”, probes both the history and present configuration of South Africa.

The research team is made up of academics, former civil servants and public officials – among them Professor Kwandiwe Kondlo of the University of the Free State, Dr Bongani Ngqulunga of the Presidency, and Prince Mashele of the Political Studies Research Institute – and others.

The idea is to draw from academic expertise and experiential knowledge arising from practice within the state. Questions raised here don’t suggest an absolute inability on the part of the state to assume a developmental role.

The state has been employed as an instrument to transform society. Its role since 1994 was not only to deracialise South African society but to spearhead that process in a manner that transforms the country’s socio-economic profile.

There has been some progress. Access to health and education has improved. More South Africans have houses with electricity and clean tap water.

Vulnerable children and single-headed households receive grants. Occasionally, through an impressive infrastructural programme, the state employs people who go on to find employment elsewhere.

Mistra’s search for answers will take the research inquiry into the various epochs and facets of South African society. The starting point is coming to grips with the nature of the state that apartheid bequeathed democratic SA.

The apartheid state wasn’t a uniform entity. It was made up of administrations with varying degrees of competence, resources and professional ethos.

What emerged upon liberation was a composite of these factors, which all possibly had a bearing on the functioning of the state.

The uneven performance of the various provincial governments, for instance, suggests this supposition is not far-fetched.

How such factors exerted their adverse influence and why they haven’t been rectified, almost 17 years into the new democratic experiment, is among the pre-occupations of this research study.

The experience and knowledge of former and current public officials will be useful here. Some analyses ascribe inadequacies in the state to working relations between the political and administrative heads.

In some instances, strained or deteriorating relations between the two affect the overall performance of a department.  Often, directors-general get the chop regardless of how mediocre a minister may be.

This has caused some departments to limp along without a director-general. This is a perennial problem. Why it hasn’t been eliminated, given its adverse impact on the provision of state services, is a puzzle this study aims to resolve.

Of equal interest to the study is the role of the private sector. The latter has been invisible in post-apartheid reconstruction.

Yet the private sector played a pivotal role in facilitating negotiations towards transition, only to disappear once the new society was born.

Was the transition an end in and of itself, intended to ensure the constitution protected capital, without any obligation to post-apartheid society?

While still faced with unresolved questions, the ruling party has committed to the idea of a developmental state that’s empowered and capacitated to intervene decisively in a wide range of arenas to conceptualise, drive and manage transformation.

The “welfarism” expanded between 1994 and 2009 means the proportion of South Africans receiving – and often surviving on – state grants is one of the highest in the world.

A national health insurance – likely to be modelled on the British (Beveridge) model of the post-war years – will soon be added to the social security net.

Official policy frames its version of the state as a combination of a developmental state and “the best attributes of social democracy”. But it’s not clear how the developmental state is different, if at all, from the welfare state.

The South African concept of a developmental state was inspired by the phenomenal development of the so-called “Asian Tigers” in the 1960s and 1970s under dictatorial regimes favoured by statist notions.

Yet SA is embarking on its developmental path under a democracy in a different historical context which demands a less interventionist state.

It’s not yet apparent how SA could emulate the rapid success of the Asian Tigers, or even use it as a source of inspiration.

» Mcebisi Ndletyana is head of the Faculty of Political Economy at the Mapungubwe Institute; this is an edited version of a discussion paper prepared for a Mistra research project.

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