/ 11 May 2009

State of the state — the voters have spoken

Business may have been prodded from the policy-making centre to its margins, but the Dinokeng Scenarios are a high-profile effort by the private sector, with civil society, to influence a government that appears increasingly set on a path of statism.

The multimillion-rand scenarios development process is funded by Nedbank and Old Mutual and several business executives are part of a team which last week issued a depressing diagnosis of the state of the state.

It does not point fingers, however. Its central message is ”We have messed up and we must get our act together.”

Under president Thabo Mbeki, the private sector was disengaged and disenchanted, despite being included in several presidential working groups.

These working groups were characterised by an absence of frankness, say insiders, after the private sector was twice Mau-Mau’ed by Mbeki. First, Mbeki berated the former Anglo-American chief executive Tony Trahar, who warned of rising political risk, and his minions took umbrage when FNB chief executive Paul Harris planned a high-profile letter-writing campaign against rampant crime.

Now the scenarios seek to bring business and civil society back to the position of influence and co-determination which they enjoyed in the late Eighties and the early years of democracy.

In a section which analyses weak leadership across society, the Dinokeng document says ”the private sector, especially big business, has missed opportunities to be a constructive architect of the future. Instead it has adopted the view that ‘what is good for business is good for the country’. Business has, by and large, treated transformation as an additional cost of doing business, rather than as an investment in the future.

”At the same time, it has tended to adopt a somewhat groveling attitude towards government, failing to confront it on certain dubious policy choices.”

On the cusp of a presidency led by Jacob Zuma, the left is ascendant and the policy direction is clearly state-led. With a state-owned bank and massive mining company on the drawing board, private business may be pushed further to the margins.

Dinokeng envisages a very different future from that being planned by Zuma’s transitional team, which is a delivery-led model with a highly interventionist government.

The scenario’s authors acknowledge pockets of excellence, but say the state may struggle to fill that role (”we have failed to appreciate and understand the imperatives of running a modern democratic state”). Its diagnosis of dysfunction includes the crippling numbers of qualified audits across government departments, the high vacancy rate in the public service and a culture of mediocrity. ”This has created a deficit in the culture of delivery, performance and transparency promised by the Constitution. Instead, a culture of mediocrity, incompetence, fraud, corruption, nepotism and entitlement prevails.”

It’s a devastating critique, but, as those present at the launch said this week: so what? We know all this, yet South Africans are not disillusioned with democracy. The turnout at last month’s elections and the convincing mandate given to the ANC suggest South Africans don’t think things are quite so bad.

The message from the Dinokeng team is that while a strong government is important for the future of the country, it’s not the sine qua non, says Adam Kahane, who is a team member and who has conducted similar exercises in more than 50 countries.

”What really matters is citizen engagement with the state,” he says, adding ”this is simple but not easy”. And we’ve done it before. While there is no contemporary blueprint, South Africa’s transition culture was to embed engagement in every aspect of policy — what Kahane calls the ”forum movement” of the late Eighties and early Nineties, when every policy (and every crisis) was subject to consensus-seeking and representation.

In 1994, he says, the attitude from government was ”Thanks for all the work, we’ll do it now.”

Fifteen years on, the ANC has been returned with a heartening majority on a solid voter turnout. Within the governing party, there is great scepticism about business, and its definition of citizen engagement is to build the ANC branch structures.

To listen to Zuma at the hustings was to realise that the locus of power will be the ANC headquarters at Luthuli House and that we are likely to see an era of party governance and less people’s governance that the scenario’s dreamscape proposes.

If business and civil society want seats at the table, these reports are just the beginning of the work.