Ralph Mathekga: Shifting institutions in a post-Covid age – focus on democracy not centralisation

Ralph Mathekga.
Ralph Mathekga.
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The post-Corona societies should rather focus on strengthening democratic processes and should not be obsessed about the role of the state, writes Ralph Mathekga.


One of the first courses I attended as a first year political science student was named The State. It was too broad a theme, but our professor, Phillip Frankel, focused much on the foundations of the state as a political community, its core purpose and the necessary institutional arrangements required to achieve its goals.

I began enjoying politics from that day and since then I have always been fascinated with the question of states, markets, and societies. Societies are supposed to pursue collective goals for their development and survival and then adopt the necessary institutional infrastructure through which to pursue those goals. Political leaders then pursue the goals of the society through government, within a set of institutional framework.

If elected leaders act outside what is allowable in terms of the institutions, they harm the credibility of institutions. Further, leaders who act outside what the institutions provide should not be allowed to adjust the institutions to cater for their behaviour or conduct. Opportunities always arise in societies whereby leaders use the moment to adjust democratic institutions to fit their behaviour.

The outbreak of coronavirus has inspired such responses across some governments whereby leaders use the moments of the pandemic to adjust the institutions of governance to fit their habits and long held desires to act outside what is provided by the law. 

The biggest shift in terms of institutional adjustments across different governments, thus democratic governments, has been a move towards centralisation of power, often going against the spirit of democratic decentralisation provided for across many constitutions in democratic societies.

The need for governments to respond swiftly against the virus has set many societies on the slippery slope of centralisation of power and resources in a few super ministries or departments held by powerful political leaders.

I have never been a fan of central planning not because it is inefficient in policy implementation, but simply because it reduces points of policy accountability through which citizens get to engage with policy before it is implemented. Indeed, centralisation is efficient because it allows for swift response and does not have to be held back by the burden of consultation, an essential element of democracy.

The problem with centralisation is that it works in places where political leaders are very disciplined and knowledgeable about the society they serve. It relies excessively on the grace of political leadership. Political leadership is the most unpredictable elements of society; hence it is too risky to setup the institutional arrangement in a way that the success of the system depends excessively on the grace of political leaders.

The idea of centralisation, or the China model of development, will run into practical problems with weaker state whereby political leaders are more powerful than institutions and yet less disciplined as policy implementers.

For African states including South Africa thinking about the role of the state in the post corona dispensation, the most obvious direction is to centralise governments to marshal resources to address long standing development challenges in those societies.

In South Africa, it is obvious that majority of provincial governments and their corresponding municipalities lack the necessary capacity to deliver water, let alone roll back the socio-economic impact of coronavirus on the surviving communities. Part of the problem is historical, and part has been exacerbated by a recent wave of maladministration in the society. On face value, all this makes for a good case to centralise government and cut out inefficient delegation of power which end up in massive inefficiency.

The problem with this solution is that it does not work well for weaker states where capacity in rolling out state policy is not only a problem at sub national government, but also a serious challenge at national government.

The situation is that national government in South Africa is equally lacking in capacity and discipline of political leadership to manage a centralised approach. Therefore, it will not help South Africa to deal with the challenge of capacity and corruption that have plagued the public service and the society.

Practically, centralisation will only concentrate political fights at the centre rendering the entire system barely functional. That is worse than the problem we are trying to resolve.

In rethinking the post-corona reconstruction, attempts should be made to strengthen local capacity in terms of both adherence to good governance and local economic empowerment. Most importantly, people should be involved in deciding on such interventions as part of the democratic process.

The post corona societies should rather focus on strengthening democratic processes and should not be an obsession about the role of the state. There is nothing fundamentally wrong about the role of the state as things stand in South Africa. The problem is the strength of democratic processes and accountability regime when it comes to policy implementation. 

This has always been the problem even before we experienced Corona. So, let’s solve the relevant problem.

 - Dr Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa's Turn. 

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