Ferial Haffajee: Forget Cabinet, cut the provinces and provincial overlords instead

While all eyes are focused on how high President Cyril Ramaphosa will swing the axe as he cuts the size of his Cabinet, better efficiencies could come from cutting provinces. 

The provinces are the biggest drain on the fiscus and deliver only development delays.  About 40% of spending is through the nine provinces while the highest number of public servants is employed in the provinces. The numbers of provincial governments were increased from four to nine at the beginning of the democratic era to enhance democracy and ensure better development outcomes.

This is based on the idea that devolved democracy is better. Nothing of the sort has been achieved and in at least two vital measures, both education and health, the provinces instead harm rather than enhance outcomes. In addition, they have become centres of patronage politics where becoming premier or a provincial minister (called members of the executive council or MEC) or a member of the provincial legislature has become prestigious appointments that are now regarded as stepping stones to higher office.

Centres of Patronage

Instead of being relatively simple centres of administration, the provinces are now centres of patronage. Political preening and high life are evident in most provinces except the Western Cape where blue light brigades are banned. In every other province, the premier is a figure of high authority who is treated like a president. The MECs then regard themselves as ministers and MPLs like MPs. 

Each premier and MEC comes with a retinue of flunkies including expensive advisors and puffed up spokespeople. The cost is stratospheric; the impact minimal. On a recent trip to the Free State, I was reminded of the uselessness of this sphere of government and also of how irretrievable it is.  

Government people in expensive wheels screeched about bullying the public because President Cyril Ramaphosa was in town. Convoys screeched over the rutted roads and through the traffic lights, many of which did not work. I saw several MECs attended by flunkies who self-importantly walked about carrying copies of speeches I didn’t see being delivered or documents that don’t ultimately have any impact on anything.

The provinces don’t set meaningful policy nor do they have much revenue-raising capability. They were only ever envisaged as a way of speeding up the administration and making life better for citizens, but in many cases they make it worse.

Untouchable

The Auditor-General reports are a testament to how this happens. Failed audits are legion and several provinces have been placed in national administration since 1994. They are markets of federal bloatedness as most of the 1.3-million civil servants the taxpayer pays for are employed in the provinces.  

But, here’s the rub. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa cannot touch them even though the National Development Plan, which he developed with former Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel when he headed the National Planning Commission makes these very points about the provinces. The provinces have become the new constituencies of tin-pot politicians like Ace Magashule, the ANC secretary-general who rose to prominence and to power in the Free State. He did this by shanghaiing the provincial budget to take central control of running tenders which he then distributed to cronies who in turn helped him create power patronage circles by helping him distribute bursaries, opportunities and jobs for those he chose.

He funded them; they funded him. He grew and grew. This is the story told in Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s smash hit, Gangster State. We have about seven Gangster States in South Africa – Gauteng is not one because it’s now decently run but it too was once in the thrall of the so-called Alex Mafia of senior ANC figures who corralled tenders for their cronies. Because so much spending happens provincially, they are the centres of the problematic tender economy.

With a strong media focus on Gauteng, there is civilian oversight of spending, but in the hinterland provinces, they are all mini-patronage states now run for the logic and pockets of provincial overlords.

Cut them and you would immediately get development dividends and massive savings with a healthy by-product being that you undercut the growth of more Magashules. 

Sadly, it’s not going to happen while the ANC is in power as too many of their most powerful leaders have come from provincial strongholds.  

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