Disintegrating state capacity is a betrayal of democracy

COMMENT

State capacity — the ability of the South African state to implement its declared policies, public services and programmes — has been undermined by systemic corruption, poor skills at critical levels and not holding officials accountable for wrongdoing.

According to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators, South Africa is one of the countries in the world where state capacity has gone backwards.

There are glaring examples of a lack of state capacity, where the actual delivery of public services is increasingly not in line with state policy objectives, laws and government statements.

The government introduced the Public Finance Management Act to ensure financial prudence, yet widespread corruption, mismanagement and waste have mounted.


The government has promised to improve school education, but South Africa regularly scores at the bottom in international mathematics tests. The government says it will pay suppliers in 30 days, yet many companies are going out of business because the government can take months to pay.

State capacity in South Africa has failed at multiple levels. To improve the capacity of the state, multi-pronged interventions are necessary.

For starters, no amount of new technical solutions, more monitoring and evaluation programmes and management-style consulting sessions will reverse the slide in state capacity.

There has to be a better understanding of the crucial elements that make up state capacity in order to come up with appropriate solutions to strengthen the capacity of the state.

The ANC as the governing party makes policy and is a crucial element of state capacity itself. This means that, although the ANC is the governing party, improving the policy capability of the ANC itself is crucial to overall state capacity. Increasingly the ANC has become a party-state, where the party has become interchangeable with the state. This means that lack of capacity in the ANC will translate into plunging capacity in the state.

Elected and public representatives are crucial elements of state capacity. Elected representatives come up with policies, hold public officials accountable for delivery and play an oversight role over the effectiveness of policy implementation. If elected officials are incompetent, corrupt or lack the necessary oversight skills, they cannot effectively scrutinise policies, public service delivery and government actions, which undermines the capacity of the state.

Public servants are crucial as coal-face implementers of policies, services and government decisions. Increasingly, senior public servants, without the requisite knowledge, competency and management skills, are “deployed” on the basis of patronage, political connections and corruption to crucial public service posts.

Competent, honest and diligent personnel not aligned to corrupt clientalist networks are increasingly marginalised, vilified and forced out. This has also eroded the institutional memory in the state, meaning obtaining quality government data and statistics — the basis for quality policy — is increasingly difficult.

A crucial element of state capacity is the ability of the state to align and co-ordinate government decisions and activities across departments. But government surveys regularly report “silos” within the state.

Because of the erosion of competency within the public service, the ability of the state to analyse problems and generate relevant, evidence-based policies has also been undermined. These factors have combined to undermine the operational capacity of the state, with the state unable to deliver services efficiently, on time and at reasonable levels of quality.

An important pillar of state capacity is the level of perceived honesty of the state, and the ability to hold officials accountable for their actions. High levels of dishonesty erode state capacity.

Because of the systemic corruption and mismanagement, and the perception that it only applies laws to ordinary citizens and low-level public servants and often exempts errant politically connected leaders and public servants, the state is increasingly losing its authority.

Furthermore, the official policy, laws and rules reflected in constitutional documents and statements by leaders are increasingly diverging from practice. For example, the South African Revenue Service issues statements that ordinary people who do not pay taxes will be severely punished, but the politically connected get away without paying due taxes.

Informal rules, behaviour and decisions increasingly supersede the formal laws, policies and behaviour. The state has lost its ability to assert the “rules of the game”, to regulate, monitor and enforce political, economic and social behaviour. This crucial component of state capacity is often missing in poorly performing African and developing countries.

The ability to manage divergent social demands effectively is a crucial element of state capacity. When the state loses its authority, it also loses its capacity to manage society-wide divergent conflicts and interests.

The views of ordinary citizens, customers and users of the quality of public services and the state’s response to them is a crucial aspect of state capacity. But these views are increasingly ignored by the state.

Democratic oversight institutions such as the chapter nine institutions, the public protector and courts hold government departments accountable for public services. But, if these institutions are packed with incompetent and politically connected staff, they are also unable to play their constitutional role and therefore undermine state capacity.

Finally, civil society — the private sector, business and social movements and nongovernmental organisations — are crucial partners in helping the state to deliver public services. But the state is often hostile to civil society, which also erodes the capacity of the state to deliver public services.

William Gumede is an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Governance. This is an edited extract from an address on state capacity and democracy at North-West University

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