Of shooting and falling stars

An extraordinary public document published earlier this year rated the state’s progress in 15 years of democracy. Towards a 15 Year Review is not a high-gloss assessment of the ruling party, but a dispassionate look at where we are and what we need to do to secure the future.

In this, it provides a cogent Cabinet assessment and a good tipping service for next year’s incumbent president for who should make the cut. And who should be cut. The key challenge is fighting poverty as the review confirms what we know: that while poverty rates have declined since the worst ravages of apartheid, the number of people living below the breadline has increased. Poverty is the national anxiety.

“The number indicates a constant concern about employment and housing. Earlier preoccupations with education and crime have been overtaken by increasing concern about poverty,” says the Review. This is fuelled by the fact that income inequality has ballooned in the period under review. The state’s response has been to ramp up social spending significantly. Welfare grants have grown from 2,5-million beneficiaries in 1999 to just more than 12-million in 2007 and the figure will move up as government makes good on its promise to raise the ceiling of the child support grant from 14-year-olds to 18-year-olds. This construction of a social safety net is credited to the stewardship of Social Development Minister Zola Skweyiya, who is one of Cabinet’s most consistent performers. He is a quiet achiever and a bold politician.

The good news is that the other vital departments including health, education and housing are all well led by Barbara Hogan, Naledi Pandor and Lindiwe Sisulu respectively. Each woman knows her onions in sectors that are essential to affirm the path of development.

Unfortunately, the cluster of ministers concerned with our safety and stability is on much shakier ground. Safety and Security Minister Nathi Mthethwa is a newcomer; his predecessor and now Defence Minister Charles Nqakula is likely to be on his way out (and is in any event an extraordinarily lacklustre leader). Incumbent Justice Minister Enver Surty has been an energetic breath of fresh air in his short tenure but a new president will have to give serious consideration to dynamic leadership for this group.

The review points to generally declining levels of public trust in government and it also finds that “Action against senior officers in all the branches of the system — intelligence, police, corrections and the judiciary — has had the effect both of bringing the system into a negative public light and in some cases of enabling­ perceptions that independent institutions have been impacted on by party-political dynamics.”

This means that the corruption investigation into police National Commissioner Jackie Selebi, the axing of prosecutions boss Vusi Pikoli, the ruling party’s attacks on the judiciary and the demotion of the prisons commissioner Vernie Petersen have hurt the reputation of the entire criminal justice system in the public eye.

The incoming president’s key challenge in 2009 is going to be economic management and with the jury out on whether Finance Minister Trevor Manuel will return after next year’s election, the cluster of ministers who must sail us through turbulent seas is not terribly strong.

At trade and industry, Mandisi Mphalwa is out of his depth while Brigitte Mabandla is as bad at public enterprises as she was at justice. With the ruling party keen to boost the role of the state in the economy, both Public Service Minister Richard Baloyi and Local and Provincial Government Minister Sicelo Sicheka are newcomers who have yet to prove their stripes. The next Cabinet must balance continuity with change — but with the ANC signalling all-change, 2009 is likely to be a buffeting year.

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