The limits of top-down development

Thabo Mbeki aspires to crafting a “developmental state” capable of directing the economy on to a path of innovation, sustainable growth, redistribution and poverty reduction.

Adopted as a goal in part because the level of private investment has been disappointing, the aspiration is otherwise built on the ANC’s admiration for the East and South-East Asian economies, where rapid economic growth over the past three decades has been guided by activist states.

However, there are worrying signs that the contemporary South African state machinery lacks the capacity to drive a developmental agenda.

Mbeki is subject to widespread criticism for his centralisation of power under the presidency. Yet critics too often conveniently forget the challenges he has had to face, whether these have been to secure adequate coordination of policies by wayward ministries, or to contain the emergence of provincial baronies.

His agenda has been that of creating a modernising state, one capable of consolidating the government’s legitimacy, promoting growth, imposing fiscal discipline and providing for delivery of social benefits.

The achievements in this regard have been considerable. Yet the modernisation thrust appears to be coming up against major limits.

First, the implementation of affirmative action has been carried out far ahead of the government’s capacity to implement human resource development. Given that access to education and skills was overwhelmingly skewed in favour of whites under apartheid, both social justice and political stability demanded that concerted efforts had to be made to render the composition of the state more representative.

Unfortunately, there is all too much evidence, for all that many remarkably able people have been brought into government, that the lamentable failures of the educational system are feeding into the state sector at national, provincial and local levels, with alarming consequences for state capacity.

Almost any perusal of the daily media will provide examples of such incapacity across a wide array of services, whether it be the hospitals, police, home affairs or prisons.

Second, corruption in government is becoming systemic. Corruption is always difficult to measure and discussion in South Africa is always emotive, with the argument commonly put forward being that matters were worse under apartheid. Yet the past is past, and what matters now is that today’s South Africa aspires to an unimpeachable level of civic virtue, as illustrated by numerous laws and institutions designed to prevent and prosecute corruption.

In contrast, for all that the government can be credited with numerous initiatives to stamp down on malfeasance, the ANC under Mbeki has sent out too many mixed messages, starting from the determination to prevent full and proper inquiry into the arms deal, through to reluctance to prosecute all but a handful of MPs facing allegations for defrauding Parliament through “Travelgate”. Equally serious has been official disinclination to investigate allegations that state positions and resources have been misused to the ANC’s advantage (“Oilgate”), while the party has proved similarly coy about tackling the conflicts of interest arising out of luminaries’ business interests. While Mafia-style party-state-business entanglements remain exceptional, connections of the members of the ANC elite to the late Brett Kebble, and the failure of the authorities to bring anyone to book for his assassination thus far, continue to raise anxieties.

Third, while Mbeki’s modernising project seeks to strengthen the state’s capacity by crafting a centrally driven yet locally responsive structure of “cooperative governance”, the prospects of realising this objective have been severely compromised by the battle within the ANC for the presidential succession. This strengthens critics’ arguments that the ANC has entrenched its dominance by eroding the independence of state institutions, as illustrated most dramatically by the manner in which divisions between the Mbeki and Jacob Zuma camps have taken root within the intelligence services. When added to such projected moves as the Western Cape provincial ANC’s bid to cynically undermine the Democratic Alliance-led administration in Cape Town, the percolation of internal party divisions into the machinery of government posits a major threat to democracy and the state’s legitimacy.

Many aspects of the government’s drive for a developmental state are admirable, but the ANC has yet to openly confront the dilemma that historically, successful developmental states have tended to be authoritarian. Top-down development strategy may accord well with the ANC’s conception of itself as a vanguard movement entrusted with achieving the liberation of South Africa’s people. Yet at another level it conflicts sharply not only with the values of the Constitution but also with the popular, grassroots sentiments that have shaped its own history.

Marrying central direction of state and economy with diverse, societal support remains the central challenge that confronts Mbeki today and whoever is his successor tomorrow.

Professor Roger Southall is a distinguished research fellow at the Human Sciences Research Council and a co-editor of State of the Nation: South Africa 2007 (HSRC Press). This article is based on the introductory chapter to the State of the Nation publication, which will be available in bookstores later this month

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Roger Southall
Roger Southall
Roger Southall is an Emeritus Professor in Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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