Some years ago, I saw an amusing Facebook post by a travel agent acquaintance. It went something like this: ‘Hi! I want a five-star, luxury, two-week vacation for my family of four to a tropical paradise. The budget is R10 000. None of my conditions is negotiable!’ Underneath was the admonition: ‘Travel agents are people, not miracle workers!’

This sort of frustration is, I imagine, common for those in service industries, especially those that deal with people’s dreams. We have a particular outcome in mind, and we’d like it on correspondingly congenial terms. It seldom works out like that; at some point we have to choose what we want. A dream cruise to a tropical island will set one back rather more than R10 000, so be prepared to pay for it; or stick with the R10 000 and get a decent long weekend getaway at a game lodge. Make the trade-off.

This thought occurred to me after watching last week’s State of the Nation Address.

President Ramaphosa has received considerable applause for what he had to say, much of it from unexpected quarters. Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen, for example, said: ‘The bulk of the President’s State of the Nation Address this evening could easily have been a DA speech, and he should be commended for at least saying some of the right things.’

For myself, I found the President’s recognition of the importance of the private sector to employment to have been especially refreshing. (That his allies in the Communist Party were upset about this can only confirm that he was onto something…) He also had some sensible things to say about the need to cut red tape and to build state capacity and agreed that the cabinet needed to be held accountable for the disaster that was the July riots last year.

Stirring stuff. Of course, now comes the inevitable rider – what about implementation? Will it be any different this time?

That’s a standard South African response. We have, it’s often said, good policies that are ineptly put into practice. Well, maybe. Sometimes. Often even. But more than a few of the policies that determine South Africa’s fate function quite well enough to make themselves felt and to fulfil at least some of their intentions. This has come at a price.

Following the President’s speech, a robust small business community is a major wealth- and employment creator worldwide. It has also been a nominal goal of policy, not since 1994, but since the 1980s. There is an abundance of evidence that a major concern for small operators has been the regulatory burden and the labour market regime. And even as this issue has received some (partial, and often reluctant) official acknowledgement, action has been largely lacking.

Much of this is to be understood in terms of political priorities. Commitment to nurturing small business is very much secondary to appeasing powerful labour (and to a degree, big business) interests, as well as its ‘transformationist’ agenda. So, bargaining council agreements are imposed on small firms without their participation or consent, labour legislation weighs disproportionately on them – to the detriment of job creation – while empowerment demands skew their ability to participate in value chains. Just where the government’s priorities lay on that last issue was made clear by its tourism relief measures, in which B-BBEE status loomed especially large.

These are matters of profound political and ideological importance to both the party and the government that President Ramaphosa heads. Be sure that any action on this front would prompt a political backlash from within them. That is, if the conviction to act on them can be mustered. Is the President himself in favour? So far, all we have is this: ‘We have started discussions with social partners as part of the social compact process to review labour market regulations for smaller businesses to enable them to hire more people, while continuing to protect workers’ rights.’

Just how much representation small businesses will have in ‘discussing’ this ‘compact’ among the ‘social partners’ is unclear.

Alongside this, the expropriation without compensation drive continues. This is despite the defeat of the proposed amendment of Section 25 of the Constitution, and the disincentive to investment that EWC represents – something that even the president has felt compelled to address (unconvincingly) from time to time.

Building a ‘capable state’ has been another enduring theme of the President’s tenure. ‘Government must work for the people,’ he said in his address, ‘That is why our foremost priority is to build a capable, ethical and developmental state.’

This sentiment has also been doing the rounds for decades: a mighty state apparatus that will remake the country. The results of this were well encapsulated in the President’s further announcement that a plan to ‘professionalise’ the public service was in motion. That the public service needs this speaks volumes about the extent of the pathologies that afflict it.

The reasons for this are complex, but again, the prioritisation of ideology played a major role. The drive for ‘transformation’, and the numbers-game form it came to take, had the effect of denuding the public administration of many its most desperately needed skills. (This was in the face of warnings in the government’s own 1995 White Paper on the matter.) More directly, the African National Congress has created an illegal, parallel system of authority through its cadre deployment system. This was done deliberately and in absolute and blatant defiance of the law and the constitution. It also ensured that the party’s destructive factionalism and internal battles would be waged in state structures with state resources. (Don’t take my word for it: the recently released report into the unrest in July last year was scathing about the effects of the ANC’s conduct on the state.)

If there is any chance of getting the state back on track, there will need to be radical changes to all this. Merit-based appointment and management and a thorough depoliticisation of the administration. Once again, does the will exist to do this? Where do the real priorities lie?

(Incidentally, both more heavy-handed and intrusive employment equity legislation – quotas in effect – are on their way, while the government has confirmed its intention to exclude foreigners from certain parts of the economy.)

My fear is that the ANC will approach this rather like that aspirant holidaymaker – I want it all, and nothing is up for negotiation, at least nothing that will make much of a difference. Yes, we want a functioning state and growing economy, but with the patronage systems maintained intact, with the ANC’s cadre deployment system skewing (and skewering) appointments and promotions – remember that the President himself defended cadre deployment before the Zondo Commission with uncharacteristic energy – and with racial ideology permeating all thinking.

That’s rather like the client saying that Tahiti is just as good as Hawaii, but all other demands remain in place – especially that R10 000 budget. It’s an exercise in implausibility.

We – or perhaps in this context, those in power, and not least the President – have to grasp the need to get doubly serious about the trade-offs that will make it possible. Large parts of what constitute ‘transformation’ will need to be rethought, if not abandoned entirely. Cadre deployment will have to go, lock, stock and barrel. Accountability will need to start meaning actual career-limiting sanctions, rather than musical chairs through the system.

More than that, we need to be realistic about what us possible. To put things right is going to be a long and arduous journey. This will an uncomfortable process, a trip in ‘lala class’, as an erstwhile cabinet minister once described travel in the less luxurious parts of an airplane (which she could, of course, not be expected to subject herself to). ‘Good governance’ is not available to us in the foreseeable future, but perhaps we can move towards some sort of ‘good enough governance’, or as one of my colleagues put it, ‘minimal competence.’

There is no business-class passage and luxury suite awaiting.

Neither will it be cheap; that is not only in the costs that would arise for retraining, and for ridding the public service of some of its less than productive and competent employees. No, the real costs would be to the political powers for whom a functioning state necessarily means the loss of so much patronage and power. We can, after all, have a functioning state or a politicised one, not both.

Perhaps a better SONA, or SONA-like event would be one that sets out realities in their unvarnished reality. To be sure, last week’s speech probably came closer to this than any of the President’s other addresses, but more candour would be welcome. Politicians, like travel agents, are not miracle workers. The plans they make stand a chance of success to the extent that they are aligned with the dictates of pragmatism. To do otherwise, to act in defiance of reality, is to invite disaster. It is, after all – and as the current government has demonstrated far too often – easier to break than to build.

Until we master that idea, as a country, we’re not going anywhere.

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Terence Corrigan

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations, South Africa’s oldest think tank promoting individual and societal freedom. Readers are invited to support the IRR by sending...

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