We need a legitimate and capable state




The question of “state formation” used to be widely debated by South Africans, but this is no longer the case. Perhaps this is because of policy confusion; perhaps it is because of the great distraction that state capture has become. The reality is that we must start making some tough choices about how we are governed.

The country needs a new national agenda that has the support of a broad range of constituencies, including — but also beyond — the governing party. This vision needs to speak to how the country should be governed from economic orientation through to inoculation against corruption.

To achieve this, the country needs leadership with whom society can identify and that does not include those who have manifestly attempted to divert resources to enrich themselves or their cronies. This will not be possible without a reformist leader at the helm of the country. But responsibility for change cannot be that of a few individuals: it must be the responsibility of every progressive South African.

This needs to start with the reform of political parties and the culture of factionalism, the gateway through which those with malign agendas seek to exert influence. It must also start with a remobilised civil society, consistently focused on protecting, advancing and building our democratic institutions, not just coalescing at moments of crisis. We must return to the country’s core values of democracy, consultation, listening to the people and directing government energy towards service provision.

The ANC does not have the luxury of choosing another path. The growing revolt among disillusioned citizens who are rejecting formal politics and elections in favour of the streets or apathy is reaching a critical point. The ANC’s sliding electoral support suggests that if it does not reform, it will soon be a minority party, possibly governing through a coalition.

A reformist leadership, together with the active backing of society, will have to turn the state away from patronage and poor delivery and direct public resources towards creating an environment in which the economy can grow, tax revenues can improve, debt can be reduced and the delivery of government services can be accelerated. A number of choices will have to be made, none of them easy. Ultimately, progress will not be achieved without disentangling party and state.

Former president Kgalema Motlanthe has rightly advocated for a meritocratic public service in which appointments are made based on a rigorous recruitment, interviewing and selection process underlined by ethics, morality and state-building. This is wholly contrary to the existing practice whereby appointments are made by party grandees and are based more on extending political influence and patronage networks than getting the job done.

The result has been a lack of productivity, accompanied by a higher wage bill. It even became popular to deride “technocrats” in the civil service as if it were somehow wrong to possess a high level of technical skill when what was needed was loyalty to the ruling party. The decision to appoint unqualified people to positions of responsibility in the civil service was justified as a mechanism to make the service — which was dominated by white people — more representative of the general population. This imperative no longer exists.

The reform of the system of public procurement in South Africa in the 1990s was driven by two main imperatives: to overcome the inefficiency of the existing system and to incentivise the emergence of black-owned, small- and medium-sized enterprises. In particular, there was a turn away from the centralised State Tender Board to a decentralised model. Procurement points proliferated across the government and the state.

It is now well known that societies with strong and enduring institutions are also the ones that have created wealth primarily through investment-led innovation and productivity gains. There is consensus among development scholars that one of the basic conditions of growth and development is what in South Africa we must come to call a “capable state”. In other words, the ability of the state to raise taxes; to administer social grants; to carry out economic and industrial planning; to generate and distribute electricity; to build classrooms and to educate children; to treat the sick; and to recruit, train and deploy effective police officers.

All of this requires autonomous, stable and professional administrations. Developmental states around the world know this and actively promote institution-building as a core strategic goal. When wealth is created primarily through rent-seeking, institutions will always be under threat. Although inclusive institutions must restructure the economy towards shared and sustained prosperity, elite interests controlling rents actively prevent the necessary innovation and institutional change.

In South Africa’s case, although our state executive institutions show strong signs of weakness and corrupt capture, our legal and democratic system still displays signs of life and robustness, as do our main development finance institutions and the Reserve Bank.

We also need to give greater thought to checks and balances in the appointment process of key institution heads — the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the South African Revenue Service (Sars), et cetera — to avoid abuse. The Constitution currently gives too much power to the president to make key appointments — a prerogative that is easily overlooked in times of “good leadership” but, as the Jacob Zuma years demonstrated, one that can be catastrophic when the opposite applies. President Cyril Ramaphosa set in motion a progressive precedent in this regard through the panel appointment process he implemented for the appointment of the NPA and Sars heads.

We must collectively protect our democratic institutions — our Constitution, judiciary, media, civil society, academia, Reserve Bank, et cetera. It is these institutions and traditions of democratic accountability that differentiate us from a Venezuela or Zimbabwe, and it is this what ultimately safeguards us from absolute capture and collapse.

We need a process of renewal through which we find a structured way to learn from other countries that have either solved such problems or are in a similar situation. We cannot afford self-deception that the leadership change of 2017 and the “new dawn” that followed are the solution to our crisis.

As my book After Dawn has detailed, South Africa’s crisis is much deeper and wider and requires rigour and dedication to understand it, confront it and implement change. There can be no heroes and short-term, shiny solutions — the heroism will be in those South Africans who put their shoulder to the wheel for the national interest, sweeping aside the rampant culture of individualism that has come to define our politics.

Mcebisi Jonas is the former deputy minister of finance of South Africa. This is an edited extract from his book, After Dawn (Picador)

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