Transforming South Africa: No easy way

2012-07-11 08:41

Since 1994 South Africa was inundated with government plans to bring about ‘a better life for all’. After apartheid this was the obvious thing to do and expectations ran high.  But after 18 years, apart from our new political freedom, most South Africans are worse off. The levels of poverty and unemployment in the country have reached unprecedented levels; more and more people are ‘proletarianised’, while the leaderless government is muddling through.

President Jacob Zuma is absolutely right that the country needs transformation. But what kind of transformation and how to bring it about?

What he proposes seems to have more to do with his own political survival and particularistic ANC interests rather than promoting the common national goals and interests.  All this is an eerie reminder of President Robert Mugabe’s way of clinging to power: strengthening his support base by dishing out white owned farms to the disaffected and looting foreign owned businesses. A real case of ‘panem et circenses’ as in Roman times!

Zuma blames ‘apartheid colonialism’, a rather disingenuous ploy, obviously looking for a convenient scapegoat.  Mainly to blame is the government itself, the selfish greed of its cohorts, rampant corruption, ideological myopia, and plain incompetence.

Judging from its track record, it is a moot question whether this government has the nous and capacity to produce the sort of transformation the country really needs.

The idea of a ’Developmental State’ propagated during the Thabo Mbeki presidency was probably a sound one, but clearly unworkable under the control and management of an incompetent government and a corrupt elite.

Minister Trevor Manuel’s National Planning Commission identified most of the country’s problems and challenges correctly but, unfortunately, he lacks the support and authority to implement his proposals.

The sadness of it all is that tin-pot ideologues, Marxists and trade unionists in particular, hold sway over the directions of change in South Africa. And the results are predictable.

Essentially transformation in South Africa should focus on specific goals of development.  These are mainly the economic growth, stable democracy, eradication of poverty, unemployment, and inequality, all forming part of a complex socio-economic-political syndrome.  This is plainly a formidable task.

The ‘big bang’ transformation strategy of the government will simply not work for the simple reason that in many respects these goals are conflictual rather than compatible. What is needed, therefore, is a sequenced, incremental and prioritized strategy. The weakness of the ‘Manuel Plan’ as well as other government efforts is the implied assumption that ‘all good things go together’. Most of the time, this is not the case.

Kwame Nkruhmah famously said: “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all things will be added unto it”. This was the mantra of colonial liberation. Soon it became clear, however, that political independence utterly failed to usher in a new era in which the socio-economic goals of development could be achieved relatively quickly.

This was also the assumption when South Africa embarked on the post-apartheid era in 1994 under the slogan “a better life for all”.  It simply never happened.  Now, 18 years down the line, the chickens darken the horizon as they come home to roost, hence the desperation about a ‘second transformation’.

Misunderstanding of the social-political dynamics of the South African society after 1994, misplaced confidence in quick-fix solutions, the lure of simplistic and anachronistic Marxist-socialist thinking, as well as the dominance of short-sighted, self interested, labour union agendas, all contributed to the government losing its way.

Intellectually and strategically, it was not up to the task ahead. Trying to reinvent the wheel it ignored the wealth of available knowledge and experience available elsewhere in the world, the successes and the failures.

Since the Second World War many countries have grappled with the problem of modernisation and development: in particular how to deal with growth, equity, democracy and stability coupled with the stresses, strains , dislocations, upheavals, leads and lags inevitably involved in this process.

In the post-colonial period there was an explosion of scholarly research on development and development theory.  But apparently government planners and politicians never went to the library. It could have saved them from haphazard decision making and the dilemma facing them at present.

Among the excellent works on modernisation and development in the post-colonial period, with important lessons for South Africa, is the analysis of the development syndrome by Myron Weiner and Samuel Huntington (“Understanding Political Development”, 1987). Three broad approaches are analysed: (a) the inherent compatibility of development goals; (b) the intractable conflict among the goals; and (c) reconciliation policies.

The compatibility theory was popular among donors and rulers alike during the first phases of the post-colonial period in Africa, as evidenced by the Nkrumah dictum. Economic growth, structural reform, political democratization and equity, are mutually dependent, hence the liberal model by Western donors which singled out a particular goal as critical, performing a ‘locomotive’ function insofar it brought progress in toward other goals.

For instance, economic growth would lead the train to greater equity, to development of democratic institutions, to reduction of social conflict and to promotion of political order.

Traditional Marxist theory proposed the same ‘locomotive’ function,  starting with the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeois state, replacing it with a n ‘equitable system’ leading in turn to economic growth, a ‘people’s democracy’ and social harmony. These and other ‘locomotive’ theories all focus on a ‘single source of evil’: poverty, injustice and dependency, with economics as the pre-eminent evil. (p11)

By the 1970’s the limits of the compatibility assumption became clear: good things often did not and could not go together. The message that got through emphasised the necessity of choice among goals. Particular emphasis was placed on the conflicts between growth and equity and between growth and freedom. (p12) Standard economic texts stressed the curvilinear relation between the levels of wealth and equity and the negative relationship between economic growth and income equality.

Higher rates of industrialisation tend to shift income distribution in favour of the high income groups rather than the poor. Conflicts between growth, on the one hand, and equity, stability, and democracy, on the other, questioned the harmony assumptions of liberal development theories. (p15)

Various theorists produced evidence that questioned the liberal assumption that poverty was the source of political instability and civil violence. Instead it is the result of unfulfilled expectations of modernising, upwardly mobile people, brought about by social modernization and development.

Revolutions occur when there is a slackening or ending of growth and upward mobility is stunted. A careful analysis by Robert Marsh of ninety-eight countries came to the conclusion that "among the poor nations, an authoritarian political system increases the rate of economic development, while a democratic political system does appear to be a luxury which hinders development”.

However, it cannot be said that South Africa falls (perhaps not yet?) in the category of a ‘poor nation.

While the basic assumptions of the conflict theorists remained empirically unchallenged, the emphasis shifted to ways to resolve the problem, to the urgent need of reconciliation. The question became: "through what policies can developing societies expect to make progress toward two or more development goals?” (p18)

The debate shifted to policies concerning sequencing and prioritising development goals, the underpinning institutional structure, and the strategies to promote the simultaneous achievement of development goals. (p18) General consensus exists concerning the sequencing of political goals of a developing society, boiling down to: “the temporal priority of order over democracy.” (p19).

On the economic side, however, no agreement exists as to whether growth or equity should have priority. Some argued in favour of rapid economic growth to enlarge the economic pie to the point where equity becomes possible.  This had notable success in countries like Brazil and South Korea. Contrary arguments are that the growth-first strategy results in skewed patters of income distribution difficult to change later.

These arguments prefer redistribution to come first, particularly more equitable distribution of assets (such as land) and rapid economic growth will follow. China and Brazil chose differently in the growth/equity dilemma and both succeeded according to their own terms. However, as pointed out by Peter Berger (Pyramids of Sacrifice: Political Ethics and Social Change, 1976) “Both...models assume the sacrifice of at least a generation for the achievement of their respective goals”.

Underlying the debate about the goals of development is that there is no easy choice. A good start, however, is to get a better understanding the complexities of political, social, and economic transformation in a developing society.

It's important to know there is no blue print to be taken from the shelf as Marxists and trade unionists are wont to do. Because of differences in cultures of development, what would work in country A would not necessary work in country B. Very few countries (notably South Korea and Taiwan) could made simultaneous progress towards growth equity and democratic stability.

This is what South Africa tried to achieve.

There was a good chance for success, given the relative modernity of South African society and politics, but failed mainly because of intellectual poverty and government ineptitude.

Rest assured, Mangaung will not produce the answer. What we are bound to see is more of the same under a different heading.

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