We’re all heading into an uncertain future. South Africa, the world, each of us individually, and Newsi too – a platform that I’ve done work for over a number of years and for which I’ve developed a lot of affection.
Over the past few months, we’ve seen blackouts reach unprecedented heights. The country’s various socio-economic crises grind on with no end in sight. The president’s already threadbare reputation has suffered a highly-publicised blow with a bizarre story of foreign currency concealed in a couch in one of his properties. The Commissioner of Police lacks the Security clearance he need for his job because he is overburdened with debt and therefore vulnerable to undue influence.
Corruption is a byword for governance in South Africa, such that the term ‘Mafia State’ has crept into the political lexicon. The attempted murder of former Eskom CEO Andre De Ruyter and the assassination of prominent liquidators Cloete and Thomas Murray illustrate the term.
For all that, South Africa remains a free society. It has a large economy with a resilient business community, a hardy agricultural sector and a sophisticated infrastructure. It has an uncowed civil society, a diverse and pretty much unhindered political landscape, a free media and independent courts. It has avoided, and credit to the government here, the temptations to reckless fiscal and monetary action. South Africa remains – for the moment – Africa’s premier modern state. None of these should be taken for granted – indeed, threats to each of them loom large and clear – but they are assets of immeasurable value and the machinery of the country’s reconstruction.
The failure of last week’s ‘national shutdown’ under the Economic Freedom Fighters showed that the market for political radicalism is a small one. Polling shows that South Africans are overwhelmingly pragmatic in their orientations.
There are no guarantees, either of success or of failure. ‘There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves’, goes the line from the Terminator movies. This could have been written for South Africa’s condition. We have within our purview the full range of options for our future.
The keys to the future are in both our politics and policies.
South Africa has entered what has been described as a period of coalitions; the period of untrammelled dominance by the African National Congress is passing. This has already become visible at local level; it is probable that next year will see this being replicated at provincial level, possibly also at national level.
It would be accurate to say that coalition governance has had a mixed record. In Cape Town, a successfully managed coalition (in the early stages of post-ANC rule) led a relatively competent administration to success. The city, its imperfections aside, stands as an example of what South Africa could be – a country on the move. The experience of (reform-minded) opposition-led coalitions in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni have been less positive. Smaller and less stable majorities, opportunist politicians (and also those who through conviction yaw closer to the ANC than to the opposition), and administrations that have been compromised by corruption and politicisation have combined to badly damage the attractiveness of coalition governments as an alternative to the ANC. Coalition partners are in a learning phase, and navigating difficult terrain.
It is imperative that opposition parties seeking coalition arrangements reflect seriously on their objectives in taking power; effectively it needs to be directed at elevating the level of governance. Easier said than done, of course, but the only productive way forward. In this, voters need to make it clear that this is what they demand from their representatives.
From this, there is a strong case to be made for policy and legislative changes. Coalition agreements demand time to be negotiated – the timeframe for setting up government after elections should be extended. Consideration should also be given to raising electoral thresholds (currently, a seat may be won win a scanty 0.25% of the vote) to counter the proliferation of micro- and personality-based parties. This would have the impact of depriving voters of their chosen representatives, but it may be a necessary compromise to enable workable governments.
Coalition agreements could also be mandatorily disclosed to the public, and given the force of a binding legal contract.
But even if more-or-less stable governments can be installed, South Africa’s prospects will depend on getting policies right. Three broad elements demand attention.
The first is the professionalisation of the public service. Even the incumbent government recognises the importance of doing so, but it finds itself in a political and ideological trap of its own making. The ANC’s so-called cadre deployment programme has been used as a means of patronage and also as a means of exercising ‘hegemony’. It has served these purposes well, but at the cost of degrading the functioning of the state. As the Zondo Commission said, it was a policy with no justification in law or the Constitution.
It must be done away with entirely. It cannot be implemented ‘better’. Nor, indeed, should it give way to some equivalent programme engineered by a new coalition or new ruling party.
What is needed is a strictly meritocratic system of staffing the state, with an eye on the politically impartial performance of duties.
This leads to the second element: the abandonment of race-based policy. Whatever justification this might have had in the 1990s, it has been shown to have delivered a great many undesirable side effects. In employment – especially employment in the state – it has meant the divesture of and inability to access skills. There is something inchoate in the recognition of the racially exclusionary distribution of skills, arising from past discrimination, but then attempting to limit the participation of many of the most skilled part of the workforce. Yet here we are. We simply do not have the luxury of doing this.
In business, ‘empowerment’ policy has ramped up the costs and difficulties of doing business. It has also been a significant contributor to crooked business practices, providing a veneer of respectability to what might delicately be described as ‘non-entrepreneurial’ activities. It has skewed the incentives away from entrepreneurship towards rent-seeking. It also needs to be radically revised, preferably dispensed with.
Thirdly, property rights need to be secured. Great damage has been done to South Africa’s prospects by the ill-considered and ideologically-motivated push for Expropriation without Compensation. This has subsided from public view, but not entirely abandoned. The notion of seizing property for reasons venal or ideological remains an ongoing threat. While this hangs over the country, the nation’s attractiveness as a destination for business or for investment is much diminished.
EWC as a possible state goal must be taken unambiguously off the table. Having done so, in combination with a professionalised public service and a more cooperative approach to the private sector, a new land reform programme and effective needs-based redistributive schemes can be undertaken.
It promises to be a long and tough road, with any number of possible diversions and pitfalls. It’s not certain we’ll make it, but there is equally no reason we should fail.