SA's great slide downhill

The troubles facing Eskom are a sign of what the state cannot do.

The troubles facing Eskom are a sign of what the state cannot do.


HOW SOUTH AFRICA WORKS – AND MUST DO BETTER by Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills (Picador Africa)

I sometimes joke that all the headlines in the news pages of the Mail & Guardian could say “It’s a fuck-up”, and all the headlines in the Comment & Analysis section could be “It’s going to be a fuck-up”. RW Johnson might conveniently title his most recent books in much the same way, but his latest retreads the title of his 1977 work, How Long Can South Africa Survive?, adding only a subtitle to clarify what it is we may or may not survive: The Looming Crisis.

In 1977, Johnson was taking stock of where the apartheid state stood in relation to its likely end, and his prediction was more-or-less correct: 15 years later, it was officially dead, and South Africa had a new, democratically elected government. In the new nostradamic book, Johnson seems to be talking about a similar time frame, perhaps shortened to a decade or so, but in interviews he has given a much shorter period until we hit the wall, saying South Africa has a mere two years before it has to go begging to the International Monetary Fund for a bail-out.

This, for Johnson, is the moment at which the ruling ANC admits defeat — that its policies have failed (or failed to be implemented), that the vast bulk of South Africans are still poor, and it has blown its budget. This of course will be a major psychological blow to a party that has generally taken the standard left line of opposition to the “Washington Consensus” and anything approaching “structural adjustment”, though Thabo Mbeki’s Gear programme (much hated by the left) was an attempt to structurally adjust South Africa’s macroeconomy and get some much-needed foreign direct investment into the country.

That didn’t happen. The reasons why are still unclear. What is clear, though, is that South Africa’s fortunes are not improving and have, in fact, since Jacob Zuma took the presidency, declined further. There are about 17-million South Africans on welfare, while general economic growth slows; in 20 years, South Africa has suffered the loss of half its industrial capacity, yet unions cry for above-inflation increases, and the national debt goes up.

This is what Johnson calls “the view from the IMF”, but it’s also the view from the Brenthurst Foundation, more-or-less, as presented in Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills’s How South Africa Works — and Must Do Better. These views converge, at least, on the major problems facing the country’s political economy. Herbst and Mills offer more in the way of solutions, but much of it is moot if there is no “political will”. Johnson goes into what might be sapping that political will.

Bureaucratic bourgeoisie

The public service, which soaks up more than a third of the state’s annual budget, forms only 2.5% of the population, and is not doing its job — or certainly not in a way that would boost the “developmental state” that is the government’s compromise between a capitalist growth-focused economy and socialist-style policies that would cushion its negative effects. What this means is that we now have a “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” that does not do what the bourgeoisie did historically in Europe, which was to drive economic growth.

Herbst and Mills give the numbers, noting that whereas “social grants, as a proportion of total government revenue, rose from 12.6% in 2008 to 14.2% in 2012, during the same period, the total civil service remuneration bill increased from 31.7% of revenue to 42.2%. Between 2000 and 2012, the average per capita income of civil servants more than doubled to R211 788. As a result, between 2008 and 2012, total state employment rose by 13%, but the remuneration bill went up by 76%.” They conclude that, “if these spending trends continue, social grants and state jobs together would account for all government revenue by 2026”.

In Herbst and Mills, the information about these state expenditures is contained in a chapter on “the social wage”. Johnson’s chapter addressing the civil service is titled “The New Class Structure”, and includes a section with the sub-heading “The Ruling Culture of Theft”. Johnson has a great polemical gift, though, commensurately, he may be guilty of overstating his case in some ways (and he is too ready to give credence to conspiracy theories). His view on the ANC’s failures as a governing party is that it is not guilty of bad governance so much as no governance at all.

By contrast with Johnson’s punchy argument, Herbst and Mills tend to express themselves in a tone of cool rationality, even when they are making pretty strong statements. After some talk about the crumbling of Eskom (all those great-leap-forward plans from Mbeki, but no maintenance of basic infrastructure!), they say: “What Eskom’s travails ultimately provide … is compelling evidence that the South African state does not have the capacity to manage its current responsibilities. The likely success of it taking on more duties, perhaps to realise the ambitions of those who want a muscular developmental state, seem poor. It would seem reasonable for state authorities to first fix what is definitely their responsibility before looking to add to their portfolio.”

This presumes that the ANC has the ability to reach these rational goals, caught as it is in what Johnson calls “the terrible ingrown passions which the long struggle in South Africa has left behind”. Utterances from the ANC’s lekgotla of party leaders and state officials this past week indicate that it is aware of these problems, especially corruption and a barely capable state, though it has raised them before and not been able to do much about them. (And for secretary general Gwede Mantashe to blame only business for job losses seems otiose.)

Johnson doesn’t believe the ANC can change. The words of his that have already been widely quoted, possibly because they appear on the back cover of How Long Will South Africa Survive?, are these: “South African can either choose to have an ANC government or it can have a modern industrial economy. It cannot have both.”

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. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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