An end to transition?

Conventional wisdom tells us that South Africa, like Russia, is a “transitional” society. What is meant by this? What government policies, and forms of action by the non-government sector, does this imply? At what point can we safely deem the “transition” completed — and what happens then?

In the first of a series of articles on the theme of transition in the Mail & Guardian, one of the country’s leading minds, Vincent Maphai, suggests this week that political transition has been largely achieved after 10 years of democratic rule, and that the bedding down period for new-order politicians and public servants should be viewed as over. “Ten years seems more than adequate for the end of government probation,” he writes. “South Africans can now raise the bar for government performance and develop zero tolerance for sloppiness among public officials.”

It is a bold declaration, and one we endorse. It does not mean that the racial and other transformations of the post-1994 state are a fait accompli. The colossal task of harnessing the state bureaucracy to socio-economic development has hardly been broached. In many parts of South Africa, the provincial and municipal tiers of government remain weak, incoherent and corruption-prone. But remedying these defects, large as they are, is work in progress, like the evolutionary change that continues in long-established democracies.

What is implied by Maphai’s analysis is that the power of the apartheid state has been permanently broken, that South Africa’s democratic institutions are now rooted and robust, and that the twin threats of provincial fragmentation and racial apocalypse have substantially receded. After 10 years of frenzied parliamentary activity, we have the legal instruments to move the country forward. We have a new state whose writ runs throughout the country and which has irreversibly broken with the past.

The implications are manifold. The government must begin to take full responsibility for the state of the nation, with the result that the “legacy of apartheid” defence must disappear from public discourse. Government leaders and officials must carry the can for maladministration and failed policies, and the ruling party’s reflexive covering for government gaffes and underperformance must cease. Cabinet ministers should no longer enjoy virtual life tenure, and the Cabinet reshuffle — a feature of most vibrant democracies — should become a far more regular occurrence. After all, it is the people of South Africa whose interests are paramount.

It goes without saying that there should be zero tolerance for official corruption and crime and no indirect indulgence of these ills — by, for example, suggesting that journalists and whistle-blowers who expose them are illegitimate “fishers of corrupt men”. Ten years is quite long enough for politicians to grasp that public office does not exist for private gain.

The recognition that political transition has been substantially achieved would also have spin-offs for “the national question” — racial policy. It does not mean drawing a polite veil over South Africa’s brutal and divided past, as certain opposition politicians appear to believe. Indeed, a knowledge of what happened under apartheid and what it meant for black people is intrinsic to the forging of a new national identity. White political and business leaders have an important role in bringing the past to life for South Africa’s whites, many of whom remain in chronic denial. They can also serve the cause of reconciliation by justifying to their constituents such remedial measures as employment equity and black economic empowerment.

But there can be no justification for crying race to deflect criticism. And there is a strong argument for saying that the time is past for needlessly belligerent and divisive racial rhetoric. What some bigoted French pseudo-scientist said 200 years ago about “Negro features” matters much less than tough practical measures to roll back discrimination and inequality.

The question of economic transition is far more difficult. The legal bars to black education, skills training and entrepreneurship may have been lifted, and the shrewd use of state power has given a powerful fillip to the emergence of a black business and professional class over the past 10 years. But in terms of the distribution of wealth, South Africa remains one of the world’s most unequal societies — and there is no denying that the socio-economic divide largely follows the fault-line of race. A powerfully symbolic issue, productive land is overwhelmingly white-owned. It is also undeniable that the management of the economy still rests largely in white hands.

Maphai proposes that we begin talking about sunset clauses on racially-based policies of redress like employment equity, once clear targets have been set. As this would reinforce South Africa’s constitutional commitment to non-racialism, it certainly deserves debate.

But economic transition is more than morally desirable — poverty and income inequality are the two most potent threats to the South African project. South Africans will have to accept that moves to accelerate wealth redistribution — probably including a market-based land expropriation programme — are in everyone’s longer-term interest.

As we move into the next decade of our nationhood we need a mindset shift : from being post-apartheid society to being an ambitious developing nation. Such a nation will recognise, but not allow itself to be psychologically encumbered, by the burdens of the past.

This newspaper believes that such a mindset shift will help create the climate of intolerance for underperformance and malfeasance, speed up the redress of past imbalances while spurring South Africa into the future we have spent the past 10 years designing.

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