OPINION | Norah Hashim Msuya, Paul Kariuki: Revive state capacity to shore up support for democracy

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South Africans want accountability and justice from the country's leadership, argue the writers. Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images.
South Africans want accountability and justice from the country's leadership, argue the writers. Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images.

With the country facing crises on multiple fronts, President Cyril Ramaphosa will need to continue to centralise his authority and overrule obstructionist colleagues, if he can't make sweeping leadership changes across key portfolios, writes Norah Hashim Msuya and Paul Kariuki.


After almost three decades of democracy, South Africa faces multiple crises. The government has largely gone from crisis to crisis without fundamentally dealing with the political and economic root causes of the crises themselves.

South Africans are demanding accountability and justice. Many feel let down by weak governance, political dysfunction, and economic inequality, mainly at the expense of the country's poverty-stricken black majority.

The country has a world-leading level of inequality, with a Gini coefficient for income distribution of 0.7. Wealth is even more unequally distributed, with the wealthiest one percent of the population owning half of all wealth, while the top 10% own at least 90–95%.

Collapse by 2030 without changes 

The consequence of a lack of structural transformation in South Africa meant that the country was in a precarious economic position even before the pandemic.

Stubbornly high levels of unemployment were already at 29.1% at the end of 2019. Poverty remains unconscionably high.

According to Eunomix Business and Economics Ltd, The country faces a precipitous economic and political collapse by 2030 unless it changes its economic model and implements growth-friendly policies. 

Since the advent of democracy in 1994, the governing African National Congress perpetuated the situation by rejecting job-intensive growth policies and instead raising wages and subsidising the poor through welfare, according to Eunomix. 

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The Covid-19 crisis came at a time when South Africa was already in a recession. The country's growth has trended downwards since 2010, averaging just 1.7% between 2011 and 2018.

In 2019, South Africa plunged into its third recession since 1994. Precipitating factors included: the global downswing following the global financial crisis, declining commodity prices, deindustrialisation, 'state capture (that is, systemic corruption), budgetary cuts, restrictive macroeconomic policies, slowed investment as a result of economic stagnation, and insufficient electricity supply and resultant blackouts, among others.

Lack of trust 

The economic crises have enabled and fuelled political crises.

Growing numbers of people perceive the state as a vehicle for predatory accumulation, aided by corrupt actors in the private and public sectors. This reality underlies the acute crisis of governance and state capture in South Africa, marked by looting and the undermining of public institutions. Taken together, these economic and political crises are eroding confidence in the constitutional dispensation.

The public is disinclined to believe that government can act decisively on critical problem areas. When asked how well or badly the government had handled unemployment, crime and corruption, a 2021 survey by Afrobarometer, the independent pan-African surveys network, recorded the worst ratings for the government in these three areas.

READ | Mikhail Moosa: Cyril Ramaphosa's 'new dawn' feels like a false dawn to many

The public has come to realise that, to a large extent, the failings of government can be attributed to an executive arm that is beholden to the ANC. The ANC is preoccupied with its internal deployment processes and its own existential interests. The recently released report from the Zondo inquiry into state capture starkly illustrate the corrosive effect that corrupt party-state relations have had on the state's capacity to perform. A captured and deeply politicised state cannot act in the public's best interest. In the eyes of citizens, the larger political culture that oversees the administration of government action has become a corrupt and debilitating political culture. It devastates the state's ability to deliver on its mandate.

What needs to be done?

The government has offered an impassioned and detailed account of prospective policy interventions that promise to address challenges facing the country, but what the public really wants to hear is how the government plans to create a conducive political environment for successful policy implementation. Much of South Africa's progressive legislative and policy framework has unravelled at the door of an executive that is unable to realise the final phase of implementation needed to affect broader economic and social change.

The political party factionalism within the ANC needs to be resolved decisively. Factionalism is a liability to the nation. This must be coupled with a recommitment to the 1955 Freedom Charter and the Constitution, which foresee a fairer economic dispensation as a critical component of political liberation.

In the immediate term, government needs to protect livelihoods and sustain the economy. Previously terminated relief measures to support businesses, workers and households must be renewed and adapted to respond to the Covid-19 crisis as well as the current crisis the country faces. Such measures are not possible with the current austerity agenda that has been adopted. The austerity course must be abandoned and socio-economic rights prioritised. This approach must be coupled with a meaningful economic transformation that serves the majority. All we have now is not even a shadow of political liberation.

President Cyril Ramaphosa's sixth state of the nation address outlined plans to remove political obstacles to effective governance and rebuild a "capable state". He spoke of deepening the professionalisation of the public service, strengthening anti-corruption measures, fast-tracking corruption-related prosecutions, and leadership changes in the security services. Political analytics establish that without sweeping leadership changes within the executive, the president faces the limitations of cadre deployment, and the ANC's policy of appointing its supporters and leaders to key government institutions, sometimes at the expense of ability and a culture of mediocrity. 

Deal with corruption 

If the government truly wishes to begin a radical restructuring process based on principles of fairness, social cohesion, and inclusive growth, it will have to deal squarely with the persistence of the culture of corruption, as well as with broader concerns about government openness and public accountability. The president's stirring speeches have so far not included much information on how his administration intends to tackle these crucial issues.

READ | Mandy Wiener: Thanks for nothing, government. We will just do it ourselves

One essential element of a comprehensive strategy to rebuild the executive's integrity and gain citizen trust would be for Ramaphosa to personally back the robust implementation of South Africa's Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). The PAIA, like other freedom of information (FOI) laws, helps promote transparency and public accountability and serves as a vital solution to entrenched corruption by providing investigative journalists and civil society groups with the raw material they need to expose wrongdoing that might otherwise go undetected.  

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Reviving the state's capacity is also crucial to shoring up support for democracy in the long term. Democracies cannot exist without popular trust in their institutions and political actors. 

No doubt, the president is aware of these constraints. But, in the absence of sweeping leadership changes across key portfolios, he will need to continue to centralise his authority and overrule obstructionist colleagues. He must also be willing to work closely with supportive elements in the private sector and elsewhere to force policy implementation. He must be equally ready to trade his party interests occasionally to avoid further losses. 

- Dr Norah Hashim Msuya is an academician and researcher. Dr. Paul Kariuki is the Executive Director of the Democracy Development Program (DDP). They write in their personal capacities. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.


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