The state is sick and, while it's ill, it can't fix the economy

Learners and riot police clash outside Parliament during President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) last week in Cape Town. (Conrad Bornman/Rapport/Gallo)

Learners and riot police clash outside Parliament during President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) last week in Cape Town. (Conrad Bornman/Rapport/Gallo)

COMMENT

South Africa is going through troubled times lately, as we saw in Parliament during the State of the Nation address last week.

To a certain extent, watching the tensions, conflicts and the leadership deficit in Parliament – the place the nation looks to for self-reflection and vision – was like watching a very sick patient in an intensive care unit, reflecting on the state of other patients in the same unit. Wouldn’t a nurse or a doctor offer a more accurate reflection?

One wonders whether the voice of the chief executive coming from our troubled Parliament should not have reflected on what has gone wrong with the nation state, and whether there is any agenda to turn the state around – a state-of-the-state address, of sorts.

During the State of the Nation address, the violence and obscenities aside, President Jacob Zuma underscored the urgency of radical transformation, going so far as defining it as “fundamental change in the structure,
systems, institutions and patterns of ownership, management and control of the economy in favour of all South Africans, especially the poor, the majority of whom are African and female”.

He reiterated the nine-point plan, which featured in both his 2015 and 2016 addresses. The speech captured the importance of ensuring growth – and, therefore, among others, reindustrialisation, the commercialisation of agriculture and mining and beneficiation, loomed large in Zuma’s address.
He argued that these sectors needed more radical transformation and declared that this was the new chapter of the remaining years of his administration.

Zuma’s proposals were anything but radical – unless we redefine “radical” to mean clearing of business registration backlogs, encouraging more women to become farmers, offering a commercialisation support programme and punishing cartels. There was also nothing radical about land reform, except appealing to “land claimants to accept land instead of financial compensation”.

There are mixed signals on economic growth, and the speech added more to the mix-up. Just a month ago, the ANC’s January 8 statement pointed to the possibility of achieving 2.9% GDP growth in 2017. The president revised this percentage down to 1.3% during his address – and the International Monetary Fund predicts a mere 0.8% for the same period.

I argue that Zuma is right in pointing us to radical transformation. But I think he misplaced the concept. It seems to me that South Africa’s biggest challenge is a lack of radical transformation of the state. A troubled state cannot transform the economy; in the same way that a patient can’t treat other patients.

On certain levels, the state has lost legitimacy and the failure to hold the nation together remains a looming threat. In part, a troubled state needs an efficient manager who is also a visionary leader. There are strong indications that the state lacks both.

What does a renewed state look like? A renewed state will meet at least three requirements.

First, it will always seek to act responsibly. Public service is a self-denial career, a calling of some kind. Those who join the public service join the call to serve the public even beyond the call of duty.

Second, individuals in a renewed state will follow moral law to guide them, with a feeling of guilt when a wrong is committed. As Nelson Mandela advised all of us, the time is always right to do what is right. In this way, there will be a collective sense of moral and ethical standards.

Third, the rule of law remains the sine qua non of any renewed state. The powerful and the powerless become equalised before the law.

The succession debate in the ANC is heating up, so there are opportunities for the post-2019 administration to renew, or to radically transform, the state. But is renewal imminent when all the presidential candidates in the ANC – which will in all probability win the next general elections – are cut from the same liberation-era cloth?

The answer to this question remains unknown. What is clear is that, if a nation state does not renew itself, it runs the risk of sliding into spectacular disasters, such as the way the apartheid state did.

I do not argue that the current state is anywhere close to the apartheid state. But the signs are as clear as day that the current state is cracking – and rapidly in some places. Seeking to transform the society when the state remains crippled is a long shot.

Dr Jason Musyoka is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pretoria’s human economy programme. These are his own views

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