The state of the state

A variety of authors and contributors ruminate on the challenges facing South Africa, offering insights and advice that the government is unlikely to heed

South Africa Pushed to the Limits: The Economy of Change by Hein Marais (UCT Press)

Advocates for Change: How to Overcome Africa’s Challenges edited by Moeletsi Mbeki (Picador Africa)

Future Inheritance: Building State Capacity in Democratic South Africa edited by Daniel Plaatjies (Jacana)

It seems odd that South Africa’s new growth path should have come out six months before the diagnostic overview of issues facing the country. Surely you diagnose the problem and then propose the solution?

Of course we know that these two items, the growth path and the diagnostic overview, come from two different government departments: the first from that of economic development, led by Ebrahim Patel, and the second from Trevor Manuel’s planning ministry in the Presidency. And now the latter has produced its own development plan, with a “vision” stretching forward to 2030, so it may be said the two plans have now converged (more or less). They certainly both make big promises about jobs to be created by a certain date, though no commentator I have read on the issue imagines either target is reachable.

As Hein Marais notes in his magisterial book on South Africa’s political economy, government pronouncements on the matter have already slid from talk of “jobs” to talk of “employment opportunities”. And there’s nothing in South Africa Pushed to the Limits to make promises of jobs any more likely to be fulfilled. Even at the fairly decent growth rates of the Thabo Mbeki years, South Africa expanded employment only minimally; now we face a global financial crisis, deindustrialisation and a ballooning public debt, which will make it even harder to create jobs.

Neoliberal development?
Marais’s own “diagnostic overview” goes back to the late apartheid government and takes the reader through the transitional period, in which, he argues, little was done to restructure South Africa’s economy to make real redistribution possible.

Yes, there was the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), but that was soon replaced by the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) programme, which reverted to neoliberal thinking: balance the budget, don’t get into debt, don’t spend too much money, facilitate foreign investment. Mbeki and Manuel applied their own “structural adjustment programme” as a way to avoid falling into the hands of the International Monetary Fund and the like — a preemptive move, as it were. Marais points out the continuities between Gear and the adjustments attempted by the apartheid state, long before that, to try to stabilise South Africa’s tottering economy.

Later attempts, such as Mbeki’s Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative (AsgiSA) and the Jacob Zuma government’s new growth path, aimed or aim to reformulate such policies to make South Africa into a “developmental state”, but that idea still operates within a neoliberal paradigm. Growth is seen as the key, but it seems less likely with each euro crisis, each consignment of cheap Chinese imports, each Eskom or Transnet stumble, never mind the looming horror of climate change (Marais prefers James Lovelock’s harsher term, “global heating”, over “global warming”, which sounds rather cosy; no, we’re gonna burn).

The conditions for a successful developmental state, too, such as a professionalised civil service and more control over banking and finance, are lacking. Hence the oft-invoked example of the “Asian tigers” is not applicable.

Marais’s chapter five, “All Dressed up: South Africa’s Economy in the 21st Century”, sets this all out coolly and rather grimly. In a book densely packed with information, such a chapter also cross-refers to other chapters on areas in which social and institutional regression is endemic: HIV/Aids and TB, failures in education and health, and so on.

The picture of the institutional culture of today’s bureaucracy, drawing on sociologist Karl van Holdt’s research, is sobering, too, and shows how attitudinal factors can play a huge role in development or the lack of it. These attitudes remind one a lot of the Soviet Union’s struggle with “bourgeois specialists”, once it discovered that workers alone couldn’t keep industry growing and functioning — what today we’d call “lack of capacity” or a “skills deficit”. At first, in the Soviet Union, the specialists were brought back in to help, but they were also blamed when things started going wrong and the state’s over-ambitious targets could not be met. Then scapegoats were sought, and the first show trials were of such bourgeois specialists.

Lenin averred that without the guidance of a vanguard party the labour movement would not progress beyond “trade-union consciousness” — that is, demands for more money without the drive to transform society as a whole. South Africa’s trade unions seem largely stuck there, despite some critique of a predatory elite, and despite the ghostly presence of our own communist “vanguard” party.

Marais sees South Africa’s left as largely ineffective, outmanoeuvred by the neoliberals or simply bypassed; it has been seduced into believing it can change the system from within, in keeping with its long tradition of entryism into nationalist struggles, rather than trying to build a truly mass-based party or alliance. It is hostile to social movements that speak for the unemployed, the homeless, and the lumpenproletariat.

The tripartite alliance has not strengthened the left but weakened it; it has been co-opted and overwhelmed by other forces in the post-1994 polity. Among them would be what Francis Fukuyama in The Origins of Political Order calls patrimonialism, the reversion to familial and ethnic allegiances and forms of wealth accumulation instead of a commitment to the (liberal) values of meritocracy, the rule of law and the kind of state regulation that would produce a “level playing field”.

Mixed results

It often seems that the “mixed economy” promised by the negotiators of South Africa’s transition has left us with the worst of both: robber-baron capitalism and non-productive accumulation on the one hand, Stalinist ideological control, a bloated bureaucracy and dreams of a command economy on the other.

Sometimes it looks as though South Africa’s most admired model is the new China, driving growth from the top down while paying little attention to human rights or democracy. But then the South African state has no desire, it seems, to emulate China’s draconian attitude towards corruption, malfeasance or inefficiency, let alone to take the kind of line a dirigiste state would take in relation to productivity.

Had it done so (or simply implemented capitalist-style performance agreements), the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), for instance, would not be hampering progress in education — our most important investment in the future, but one in which huge amounts of public money (R165-billion in the 2011 Budget) are being spent without much to show for it.

In his penultimate chapter, “Power, Consent and the ANC”, Marais outlines the difficulties facing the ANC in pursuance of its “hegemonic project”. His summary of the situation is worth quoting at length: “The ANC’s … biggest problem is how to reproduce and retain consent in an economy which structurally is incapable of providing jobs on remotely the scale and quality required, where public service is proving elusive, inequality is widening, precariousness and misery [are] routine, and a palpable sense of unfairness is rampant. Power and consent can then only nominally depend on material change, forcing greater recourse to ideology and the language and symbols of the liberation struggle and to rousing affirmations [of] entitlement and belonging. In a society this unequal and unjust, there is a serious risk that chauvinist, exclusionary notions of belonging, citizenship and rights will prove politically rewarding.”

What, then, to echo Lenin (echoing Cherneyshevsky), is to be done? Despite the Marxian frame of his analysis, Marais is not so foolish as to imagine that neoliberalism or global capitalism can simply be swept away or ignored, or that South Africa could opt for autarky and survive. He is clear about what should not be done, such as greater opportunities for capital flight (the Zuma government, apparently of its own accord, increased tenfold the amount of money a company could take out of the country), or the way black economic empowerment allowed white capital to shed less productive assets in the name of redistribution.

Marais gives examples of successful developmental strategies, as applied in Porto Alegre in Brazil and Kerala in India, noting that the key to success there was a bottom-up or devolved form of community input, not just orders (or wishes) from central government. In terms of “social provisioning”, he argues strongly and convincingly for an across-the-board social grant, free of the cumbersome machinery of means-testing (and recuperable from the better-off minority via tax). It seems little enough.

Leadership and democracy

The books edited by Moeletsi Mbeki and Daniel Plaatjies try to offer more grandiose solutions. In his earlier Architects of Poverty, Mbeki laid the blame for lack of development in Africa firmly at the door of the continent’s rulers, addicted as so many are to power itself and to personal accumulation, in hock to oligarchs, the military, the bureaucracy (often the only form of social mobility) and foreign capital or aid.

Obviously democratisation is vital, and progress has haltingly been made in some areas, though, as Gilbert Khadiagala’s excellent piece in Advocates for Change shows, there is much “pseudo-democracy”: rulers submit to elections because foreign donors insist upon them, and they let donors and other external agencies fund and run elections, leaving “endogenous” democratic institutions undeveloped. The thinness or lack of such institutions means elections are easily manipulated or stolen by incumbents.

In pieces ranging across Africa, the writers in Advocates for Change tackle various issues from varying angles. Paul Jourdan argues that Africa’s mineral resources can be a powerful lever for development, while others consider ways to improve the productivity of traditional agriculture, say, or to face the challenges of industrialisation. L Amédée Daga, a former Mauritian parliamentarian, describes the “Mauritius success story”, and it is indeed a useful outline of pragmatic solutions to developmental problems.

Jonathan Jansen’s piece on the state of South African education, echoing Marais, bluntly confronts the issues: too many policies and too little planning, for one. “The critical skills of leadership, management and administration … are non-existent in the larger provinces,” he writes. Overall, and in relation to power blocs such as Sadtu, “It would take exceptionally courageous political leaders … to place the interests of 13-million children … above the personal and political interests of those in power.”

The corresponding piece in Future Inheritance, by Graeme Bloch, doesn’t mention Sadtu, except by implication: “The quality of teaching is central to the crisis in education.” Other pieces in the book evince a similar feeling of walking on eggshells, perhaps because many of the contributors work in or advise government.

But compare the straightforwardly honest piece, “Improving the Capacity of the State”, by Neva Makgetla, deputy director general for policy development in the economic-planning department, with “The Institutional Evolution of the ANC as Party of Government after 1994”, by national executive member Fébé Potgieter-Gqubule, which reads rather like a committee report. Anthony Butler worries about excessive “presidentialisation” of our political system, while Frank Chikane, former director general in the Presidency, lauds the firm centralisation of power undertaken by Mbeki (and denies any neoliberal influence on policy).

Skills and the state

Several contributors to the Plaatjies book overlap with those in Advocates for Change, and one emerges from both with a long mental list of what should be done, as recommended by the authors. So much of our political and developmental discourse, from within or without the state, is a catalogue of “should”, “ought”, “must”, “needs” … but is anyone in power listening? And, if they are, how are the good ideas to be turned into action?

Much of what is hoped for, in these books, depends on a strong, well functioning state, which few African countries have. What strengths South Africa’s state does have, relative to others in Africa (tax collection is one area, efficient elections another), are vitiated by a host of other deficits, skills in particular.

There is almost nothing in any of these books that directly addresses this problem, or suggests how the bureaucracy is to be professionalised. (The new development plan argues for a severance of public service and business interests — can it be done?) At the same time, basic democracy and the necessary accountability are being eroded by legislation such as the Protection of State Information Bill and the executive’s hostility to checks and balances such as those provided by the Constitutional Court.

This rather reminds one of Patrice Lumumba’s comment on the indigenous elite at the time of Congolese independence. They don’t want to be free, he said; they just want to be Belgians.

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.


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