/ 3 February 2012

Dreams of China vs local realities

President Jacob Zuma dreams of China: of 10% growth and an elite bureaucracy co-ordinating the machinery of party, state, and private sector to power high-speed trains and build bridges across farmland and swamp.

The president’s State of the Nation address next week seems sure to paint a South African version of this dream, inspired by regular Cabinet and ANC visits to the Middle Kingdom. It is to be a year of infrastructure; of truly huge projects with the potential to put us on a Maglev train to growth and employment.

That is no bad thing. Infrastructure is a pretty good way to spend money when you are trying to boost the economy in the short term and to prepare it for long-term growth. It is also not a new thing — using parastatal companies to drive growth through infrastructure development was supposed to be the big push for Thabo Mbeki’s second term of office.

But there are crucial differences between what Zuma will sketch and the Mbeki-era plan, which hoped to hit the impossible trifecta of excellent, cheap, profitable transport, electricity and telecoms — and, not surprisingly failed.

The new approach calls for centralised co-ordination, ministerial arm twisting and public money (albeit laundered through development finance institutions and government employees’ pension funds) instead of ­relying on the classical corporate governance model and market-based finance approach pursued under Mbeki.

The private sector will be drawn in too, with “strategic” companies pushed to invest on the basis that they will fend off more serious intervention in their affairs if they do so.

Many will welcome any plan that seems to demonstrate clear political will to unclog the sclerotic arteries of the economy. We certainly do — but there are big questions.

South Africa, with some remarkable exceptions, lacks mandarin elite: our civil service is weak and overstretched.

Just as importantly, if not more so, the Industrial Development Corporation and Development Bank of South Africa do not have access to the massive savings that power state-owned Chinese banks.

Finally, central control is simply harder in democracies, even – perhaps especially – ones with dominant ruling parties beset by factionalism.

Of course, for some of those who have visited China recently the answer to such frustrations of democracy is to have less of it.

The new intelligence legislation that we report on this week threatens to overturn the reforms of nearly two decades and install a powerful new state security apparatus with extraordinary powers to spy on South Africans and take covert action. The result will be to embolden a corps of spooks who already play too active a role in our polity.

Zuma would do well to remember that while he dreams China we live South Africa.

Our intelligence services must be designed to serve democracy and our parastatals to build their bridges in one.