The state wags the dog, at the ANC’s cost

The recent launch of the United Front (is it a platform, or a party, or a discussion group?) has thrown into relief once again difficult questions about left-wing identity. What does it mean to be leftwing today? What are left-wing policies and practices?

For all the difficulties of definition, there is one issue on which most on the left would agree: both historically and conceptually, the left in South Africa has privileged the role of the state in the realisation of fair social and economic relations. In this regard, the United Front (UF) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) share much with the ANC.

The ANC’s January 8 statement places the Freedom Charter at the centre of its programme for 2015. As an instrument of resistance, the charter offered a progressive and inclusive vision of a post-apartheid society. But as a manifesto of government, it is a very limited tool. It contains no theory about how the state should be constituted and no guide as to how its vision should be implemented. The ANC claims that the National Development Plan is precisely such a guide. The EFF ridicules the suggestion.

This raises an acute problem for any political party in South Africa, but especially for those who want the government to play a leading role in the economy and society.

How can the government be made to perform progressively or even moderately well?

In South Africa, thinking about the state has barely moved beyond metaphor. “State power” must be captured, the “levers of the state” must be exercised, and so on. But the failure to understand the state leaves any political party that wishes to govern at the mercy of forces to which it is blind and which it cannot begin to shape or control. It is already costing the ANC dearly. The evidence that the ANC is in electoral decline is unmistakable, except in KwaZulu-Natal.

To begin with, the idea of the “state” is itself problematic, that a single term is adequate to describe what are in fact thousands of separate and distinct departments, components, units and agencies at national, provincial and local level.

Consider a typical municipality. It has on average six directorates consisting of 20 departments, operational and strategic standing committees, agencies and ward councils. There are 284 municipalities – that is, nearly 6 000 departments at local government alone. Each one has its own staff, history, culture, hierarchy and conflicts.

In this regard, the term “the state” is one of wishful thinking. To write and talk as if “it” has a will or interests of its own is to imagine that thousands of organisations and more than two-million people are, somehow, co-ordinated to work in common pursuit of shared goals. Theoretically speaking, this was the critique that Foucault made against Marxists in the 1960s and 1970s – that they treated the state as if its officials were always singing from the same song sheet.

The way the term “state” is used in South African frequently confuses two distinct phenomena: organisations and institutions. Organisations are collections of people and resources that have been mandated to achieve some purpose or another. An institution is an organisation where people and resources function according to established processes, norms and rules. 

Putting people in a building and giving them resources does not an institution make. For this to happen, everyone has to be playing the same game according to the same rules. The alternative is statis, incoherence, fragmentation or plain chaos.

Institutionalisation is a difficult task anywhere. In South Africa, it is further complicated by the legacy of apartheid, policy choices made in the 1990s and the ANC’s often naive understanding of what it takes to govern. A typical department of education at provincial level, for example, excluding Gauteng and the Western Cape and Northern Cape, is an amalgamation of at least five separate administrations: a Bantustan department, a department of education for whites, one for coloureds, another for Indians and a former Bantu education department for black Africans.

In some cases it was much more. In Limpopo, for example, in addition to the racially segregated departments, it comprised officials from Venda, Lebowa, Gazankulu, KwaNdebele and KaNgwane. In total, the department of education in Limpopo is a composite of nine administrations.

One of the enduring legacies of a rushed process of amalgamation is that new public servants are often loyal to their former colleagues or personal networks rather than to the new organisational structure or hierarchy. A head of department presiding over staff from different administrations usually has little authority over them. On top of this, officials from previous departments compete for positions, exacerbating conflict and competition in the management echelon.

The ANC’s policy of cadre deployment only heightens these tensions with officials joining the organisation as a way of outmanoeuvring their colleagues for influence or promotion. In this way, the poison in government is transferred to the ANC. It is like a blood transfusion that makes the donor sick.

This may explain why the president and the Cabinet react to government as if it is a foreign creature. President Jacob Zuma’s response to Nkandla has been that it was the fault of government departments and public servants. But he is the head of government. This idea of government as distant and dysfunctional has major conceptual and political costs.

It is responsible for the further politicisation of the state. Zuma dispatches his knights as if to tame an exotic beast. Recently the idea was mooted to expand the staff of the department of performance, monitoring and evaluation massively. Reminiscent of early Soviet policies, the rationale was to have a monitoring and evaluation official in every department to make sure that government employees did what they were supposed to.

A political purge is unfolding at the South African Revenue Service and in the Hawks. Politicisation has already happened in the police, in national intelligence, at the National Prosecuting Authority, at the SABC, at Eskom and at SAA.

But politicisation fuels managerial instability in departments and, perversely, fuels factionalism in the ANC. Most importantly, it comes at the cost of institutionalisation. Institutionalising the way that officials and managers work is an urgent need for the building of the state. None of this can be achieved with management instability, high turnover rates, which see 10% of all staff leaving within a year, and the purging of leadership cohorts.

Political parties, especially those of the left, need to start thinking seriously about the nature of the state, not simply in terms of whose interests it serves but also in terms of how departments work, what kind of skills they need, who they employ and how staff are appointed and how organisations are structured. Without dealing with these questions any party that enters government will, like the ANC, face capture by the state. 

Ivor Chipkin is the executive director of the Public Affairs Research Institute and a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand

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