Wednesday, 31 May 2017

South Africa in Crisis: Which Way Forward?

That South Africa is politically crippled is beyond doubt. The legislature is dysfunctional; its leadership is compromised and more often than not the national parliament is a circus, especially when the president is in attendance. Political leaders no longer enjoy the trust of the majority of South Africans, even amongst supporters of the ruling party.

Moreover, the state is under attack from rent-seeking networks who profit disproportionately off the substantial procurement budget of the state (i.e. R500 billion). It is now common knowledge that the president and his family is deeply embroiled with an Indian born family – the Gupta family – who have been central to a mountain of scandals related to the procurement budgets of state-owned entities and government departments.

Only this weekend, the emails of the Gupta family and their network of associates were leaked to the press. Every day new scandals emerge, scandals that would normally be enough to force the resignations of those who have been exposed; purely on the basis of preserving the integrity of the offices they occupy. Yet nothing happens.

Apart from a few very junior fall-guys, hardly anybody suffers severe consequences for corruption and maladministration. More often than not the guilty party is taken out of the public eye for a while, only to then be elevated to a new position. In other words they are rewarded the same way as a foot soldier in a criminal network is; they go to jail without ever confessing the whole truth knowing that a reward awaits them on the other side of their time inside.

Loyalty lies at the core of one’s survival in the political leadership and bureaucracy of the South African state. Without it, one is consigned to an existence of fear and anxiety; you do not enjoy ‘protection’ and are hence vulnerable. You may not get that promotion, despite how competent you are. You may not get that job, despite being qualified for it. You may not get social housing, healthcare, and so forth, without having the money to smooth a few palms.

There is little comfort in this new South Africa if you are not connected to power, whether at the local levels, or higher. In this way South Africa is moving backwards. It is becoming a country that shares the same qualities that the Apartheid state possessed. Under the disproportionately unequal distribution of power under Apartheid the only way to ensure that one’s needs were addressed was to access power and demonstrate loyalty to it. This loyalty was bought in many different ways, not only through bribery. This is a critical point to keep in mind, as it is through this that society was subdued and kept ‘in its place’ so to speak.

An authoritarian regime demands loyalty to it at every rung of the ladder of power. It demands that loyalty be openly declared and demonstrated through acts. It does not tolerate mere loyalty through words, loyalty has to be proved. And ironically, despite our liberal egalitarian constitution and the progressively structured state and government we have put in place we have, in essence, reproduced the same structural and power relations that dominated societal relations under Apartheid.

It is not a casual statement to make, that is; that we have reproduced the systemic flaws of Apartheid in our new democracy. Indeed, it is one that should provoke pause for thought. How, despite the concerted and energetic efforts to transform South African society in the transition to democratic rule, did the very same structural and power relations reproduce themselves?

Is there some kind of stubborn DNA that government, the state and society possesses? Is there something deep within the people that colonialism and Apartheid reproduced? Is there a tacit system of rules, controls, functions and processes that survived all attempts and efforts to transform government, the state and the key institutions and organisations within South African society? What is it that is holding us back?

Perhaps it is a combination of these factors that come together to render the government, state and society irreversibly set on a trajectory that it struggles to redirect. Perhaps whatever efforts are made to transform it, it will nonetheless find ways to regroup and continue along the same path. It is resilient and stubborn because it has entrenched itself over many centuries. It cannot easily be undone. The current leadership, and their failings, are but actors in a saga that has endured over hundreds of years; a saga that pauses reluctantly only when exceptional leaders happen to grace us with their wisdom and patience.

This has occasioned many with the view that the current death-spiral that the ANC government is locked in – torn apart by factionalism and ridden with scandals of corruption and maladministration – is nothing more than a continuation of the status quo that South Africans have endured for centuries. There is nothing new about it they claim. All that has changed is that whereas corrupt and predatory behaviour was once largely the preserve of powerful colonial and settler elites, it now wears the face of the black elite. Calm down, they say, it didn’t bother you before; the only reason it bothers you now is that black people are doing it.

It is a perverse logic, one that brokers nihilism as though that is all we can hope for. We are forever to be caught within an unequal, exploitative system that denies the majority their rightful seat at the table. They are forever to be the loyal subjects of patrons who wield power over them instead of serving and representing them faithfully. Yet this perverse logic is merely the logic of acquiescence. It is not the logic of struggle. It is its opposite. It draws on a long psychology of reconciling with oppression and conspiring with it against one’s own people. It is not a logic that can bring about anything new.

Half-baked ideological rhetoric is marshaled to stir up the undecided and the lumpen proletariat. Promises that will never be fulfilled are lapped up because the central question – i.e. how – is not adequately interrogated. Yet the questions that should be at the top of our minds, and should constitute the key social questions that we – as a society – are concerned with, are not concerned with how we can bring about a better future.

Our questions are, by comparison, more concerned with who should take the blame for the system that we endure under. We are not concerned with the question of how to give birth to new trajectories and sustain them. We repeatedly fail to draw on our ability to generate new possibilities, to draw on our creative imaginations and sustain the vision that flows from them.

Perhaps this is because we are so removed from power, so powerless in reality, that we cannot imagine how we can be active agents in changing the society we live in. Perhaps this is because of our “growing alienation from the political process”, as literary master and Professor Njabulo Ndebele put it today in an address to the South African public given by the board of trustees of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. He drew on a statement of academic Khaya Sithole, who describes our condition as:

“The replacement of the politics of participation by a politics of ratification, in which citizens ratify decisions taken elsewhere by others through a system now viewed as fragile”

Power gone unchecked has rendered South Africa a confused mess. The absence of an active citizenry, one that exercises its prerogative as constitutional citizens, has rendered democracy itself ineffective. In the vast chasm where true power should lie, lies instead a collective vacuum. The citizenry have abdicated their role as the ultimate arbiter and judge of the powerful. Its elected leaders and unelected elites have hence run amok. They have taken the gap – so to speak – and it has widened considerably, leaving nothing but confusion and apathetic despair in its wake. As Njabulo Ndebele put it, they are not concerned with the constitution from which our citizenry draw their collective purpose and vision for the future:

“Instead, they use and abuse the constitutional state to build parallel bases of power and extract wealth shamelessly for themselves and their networks. It is no wonder that this untenable situation has led to calls across the land for the head of state, President Zuma – largely regarded as the author of the current malaise – to vacate the highest office of state. We urge him to listen to the voice of the people.”

The elites in power have moved so fast that they have left us reeling. Their project is to bend the constitution to their will, and to violate it if necessary, in service of an ill-defined political project; one that has been constructed behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms, far away from the grassroots, where the voices that should count the most reside. The citizenry – on the bottom – are left with nothing but sound-bites and searing rhetoric to guide us.  We are expected to ignore the inconsistencies and the multiple agendas that load this project, and to throw our support behind those profess to act in our name. They demand our loyalty. They no longer deem us worthy of earning it from us.

That is what unchecked power ultimately leads to. Power, after all, takes its place amongst the worst of addictions; it is not something to be granted without oversight. It remains to be seen whether South Africans have yet understood what is required from them to preserve their democracy; that they cannot rely on their leaders – whether in government or elsewhere – to perform their primary role for them, that is; holding power to account. 

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The ANC in Freefall: Tipping Point or Turning Point?

It is now beyond doubt that the ANC is spiralling out of control, twisting in the ever widening gyre, displaced from its once undisputed heights as the oldest liberation party in Africa. The freefall has been felt across all sectors in society and is the central subject of discussion in homes across South Africa. Although many commentators are hesitant to label this political moment as a critical turning point for the ANC, it is – in my view – indisputable that this is a critical tipping point.

The scales have, after eight years, finally tipped against President Jacob Zuma and his leadership. They stand alone, and the winds of change threaten to consign them to the dustbin of history. They will resist, they will fight and they will sabotage, but some will turn against their former allies in the Zuma leadership and pledge allegiance to the winds of change. This is just simple opportunistic politics at work. Those who still have a future in government and the ANC will do what they can to redeem themselves from the ‘rot’ that has infected the ANC at all levels.

Already, the signs are clear that both Fikile Mbalula and Malusi Gigaba – the new Ministers of Police and Finance, respectively – have chosen to backtrack from the Zuma leadership’s front line. Fikile Mbalula is engaged in a court battle with the former – illegally appointed – head of the Hawks Special Investigation Unit (i.e. Berning Ntlemeza), and Malusi Gigaba has considerably diluted the rhetoric around ‘radical economic transformation’, equating it with “inclusive growth” instead. These turnarounds are significant. Both Mbalula and Gigaba are young politicians – ex-heads of the ANC youth league – and have a promising future in government. President Zuma is a lame duck president who is on his way out, whether through recall or the end of his term in 2019; they have to think about their futures beyond his leadership.

Even older, more seasoned leaders such as the Minister of Public Enterprises Lynne Brown have opted to evade taking a stand for the Zuma power elite that she once supported wholeheartedly. Instead of taking direct action against the Eskom board for its ridiculously inept and blatantly deceptive ‘re-employment’ of Brian Molefe as Chief Executive – i.e. claiming that he had taken early retirement at 50 after he had very publicly resigned last year to clear his name and act in the interests of “good corporate governance”, only to be later sworn in as a member of Parliament (which clearly forbids him from remaining in the employ of the state) – Minister Brown instead chose to leave the decision in the hands of the courts and has called for an independent inquiry into Eskom and its practises. It is a significant climb-down, that has led many to intimate that Brown had been put under pressure to support the return of Brian Molefe as Chief Executive. Indeed, former Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan questioned her directly at yesterday’s parliamentary committee whether she had been instructed to support Brian Molefe’s reappointment by the board.

The tripartite alliance, on which the ANC rests its broad-based legitimacy (i.e. with the South African Communist Party and the Council for South African Trade Unions) is in tatters. Both alliance partners of the ANC have called for President Zuma to step down, and COSATU has gone as far as to pronounce that President Zuma will not be welcome to address COSATU gatherings. Last month he was booed off stage at a COSATU event, which had to be cancelled because of the anger that the crowd directed at him.

Last week the South African Council of Churches – perhaps the most reputable non-partisan body, which played a key role in mobilising mass action against the Apartheid state – announced that it was ready to question the moral legitimacy of the state. In an event that ran almost three hours, where they detailed SACC had learnt from its Unburdening Panel, which sought to provide a safe, confessional space for those who had been compromised by corrupt activities in government and the state. It was clear to the SACC that the South African state was under its most extreme threat that it has ever been under democratic rule. Possessing the the most formidable, politically neutral force for public action in South Africa, the SACC’s entry into the fray over the collapse of the ruling party speaks volumes for the desperate crisis that the ANC has plunged the country into.

Government and the legislature have become all but dysfunctional, sabotaging itself and pulling in different directions, seemingly over every decision it needs to take. The only unity currently exists between opposition parties, who have joined hands in an all out effort to counter what has broadly become known as “state capture”. Government is in paralysis, and this is a direct consequence of the paralysis within the ANC itself, which finds it difficult to break ranks with its elected ruler, his leadership and the “power elite” that they act in concert with to execute their programme of state capture.

Opposition from within the ANC to the Zuma leadership (and by extension his network) has mounted, but it remains to be seen how effective it will prove to be in bringing about his removal. It is a sad sight to behold; a once vaunted liberation party – one that brokered the most significant political transition and humanitarian constitution – now lies defeated by its own hand. It is foreseeable that in the absence of any significant ability to self-correct, the ANC will not remain in power after the 2019 elections.

With regular crises in service delivery (from water to electricity, healthcare, education, social grants, housing), debilitating crises that have arrested heavily indebted (i.e. effectively bankrupt) state owned entities and companies (SOEs/SOCs) such as Eskom, SAA, Transnet, SABC, etc. and the mounting unemployment, inequality, poverty, rising prices of services and goods, and an slow-growing economy that has been declared junk status deterring foreign investment; it is clear that the ordinary citizenry are running out of options to meet their day-to-day needs. Their leaders seem incapable of taking the actions that are necessary to safeguard the public interest and the public good. The broad perception is that it is no longer the ANC itself who is in control of decision-making, but a behind-the-scenes patronage network that has gathered around the leadership of President Jacob Zuma.

It remains to be seen whether the tipping point will prove to be a turning point for South Africa in real terms, that is; whether the President and his leadership will be recalled by the ANC or forced out of office by broad-based public protest. But what is clear is that there is now tacit agreement from all sectors of society, as well as the entirety of political leadership in the country – perhaps even within the Zuma network itself – that the country cannot possibly endure under this kind of leadership and enjoy a prosperous future that is characterised by transparent and ethical governance. More of the same is bound to erode the South African state to such a degree that it no longer functions as a capable bureaucracy, and to split and polarise the political and social realms to such an extent that society itself becomes dysfunctional.

The phrase, “the fish rots from the head” has come to characterise the plight of current day South Africa. There is no skirting around the fact that the loss of legitimacy of the ANC government has plunged South Africa into its largest crisis since the decline of the Apartheid state in the 1980’s. This crisis is multidimensional. It is simultaneously a crisis that is constitutional, governmental, economic, social and political; one that threatens to bring about a perfect storm. South Africa has stood on the edge of the precipice before, and has managed to marshal its considerable socio-political resources to convert tragedy and adversity into emancipatory transition and reformation. There is little doubt that it is time for South Africa, as a country, to gather its strength and take back the reins of power from those who have abused it, and do the hard work of restoring its national sanctity again.  

Friday, 12 May 2017

Radical Economic Transformation: Bureaucratic Hurdles to an Innovative State

It is well-established that from the perspective of black professionals and entrepreneurs transformation in the private sector has failed; that with a few exceptions it was met – not only by direct resistance – but by various forms of sabotage and subterfuge. From the very onset of the new democracy affirmative action and black employment equity was met with paranoia and dissent from white South African society and opposition politicians such as Tony Leon. My generation directly experienced the fronting, tokenism, use-and-discard, obstruct and marginalise, ‘make-examples-of’ style of obstructionism that white middle and upper management employed to ensure that transformation – as a project – was doomed to failure in the spaces that were under their control.

The central message was that transformation was only acceptable if it occurred on their terms. This has bred profound levels of resentment and disenchantment amongst black professionals in particular over the past 22 years. So the support for a radical transformation agenda is understandable. The central theme running through it, however – which many white South Africans have not grasped as yet – is that what makes this agenda radical is that it represents a profound change of direction i.e. a complete decoupling from the white-run private sector. It is radical because it seeks to disengage entirely and “go it alone” so to speak. The ultimate aim of going it alone is to mount an attack on the white run private sector from a black business base that is capitalised by the state (i.e. through procurement funding from the state and state-owned-enterprises).

The conversations occurring between black professionals and entrepreneurs now is about setting their own agenda, strategy and rules, and moving ahead without the white-run private sector entirely. Attempts to recast radical economic transformation as empty, populist sloganeering are hence deeply misplaced, and proof of this is that for the first time black professionals are not even bothering to explain themselves or attempting to correct the misconceptions that white society may harbour over the new agenda. The way they see it, the time for ‘asking for permission’ has long passed, and no explanations are necessary. This train is leaving town, and fast.

And while it is difficult to find a black South African who would not agree that some form of radical economic transformation is necessary, it is a greater truth that this is essentially a battle being launched by the professional class. It is they who are fed up with existing elites – both the black comprador class who benefited from the transition as well as white run business – and have the power to effect change. The political ‘beauty’ in this agenda, however, is that it finds easy appeal amongst the black majority – who have endured the worst effects of unemployment, inequality and poverty in the new dispensation – and advances the interests of the black professional and political class at the same time.

This is not to suggest that there aren’t real thinkers, activists, academics and political leaders formulating sincere ideas for broader societal change through this agenda [1], but merely to make an analysis of how the popular discourse around this agenda is emerging. It is self-evident that the current moment is ripe for it, but it would be folly to think of this as just simply an opportunistic moment. It has incubated slowly over the past 22 years and has matured beyond the point of return. Even if President Jacob Zuma and his entire patronage network are systematically removed from their positions of power within and outside of the state, the sentiment and desire for radical economic transformation is now well seeded and will continue to grow.

Yet the fundamental narrative that underlies radical economic transformation – as espoused by the new Minister of Finance Malusi Gigaba – warrants closer scrutiny. This narrative poses that the R500bn annual budget for procurement can and should be leveraged to support black business and entrepreneurs, so as to fast-track the growth of black ownership and participation of the broader economy. Central to this plan is the vision of creating 100 black industrialists, who it is hoped, will essentially yield trickle down effects to the larger black populace through employment, support for small to medium scale black business and entrepreneurs, and the participation of black business in the productive economy where goods are produced, services rendered and value chains created (as opposed to the comprador classes’ participation in the financial economy i.e. owning shares and stakes in white run business and sharing in white capital).

So the key question regarding what is radical about this agenda – as I have argued in a previous piece – is simply, why this neoliberal response to the transformation challenge? Relying on outsourced functions of the state and state owned business to catalyse black business, that is; using state procurement funds as a ‘stimulus package’ for BEE, essentially plays within the rules of neoliberal economics. It does not challenge it in any substantive way; it just challenges white run and owned business on the same terms that many would argue has led to the deep inequality, widespread unemployment and poverty that the radical economic transformation agenda purports to challenge.

Indeed, when the president stated that radical economic transformation means that “nobody will go hungry”, many would have assumed that he was referring to a state led response to the troubles affect the black working class and poor. They would not have immediately assumed that he was referring to another trickle down economic strategy as a solution for poverty and unemployment. Indeed, he expounded on the definition as meaning, “fundamental change in the structure, systems institutions and patterns of ownership, management and control of the economy”. Yet, if one looks at who has championed this cause most vociferously and faithfully, it has been the Economic Freedom Fighters party, who challenge the status quo not just on matters of ownership, but on the structural basis of the economy and society’s institutions.

While it is true that left-oriented proposals for nationalising the banks and mines have been put forward in the debate – even by the Minister of Finance’s advisor Professor Chris Malikane, amongst others on the left – the reality is that the minister has decisively announced that it is not ANC policy to pursue this route. If we observe that the National Empowerment Fund and the IDC have been merged to support the programme to develop black industrialists, alongside the efforts to establish a state-owned bank in Kwazulu-Natal, and combine this with repeated and concerted efforts to establish control over the National Treasury, it is clear that the programme for radical economic transformation primarily targets the black professional and entrepreneurial class; a class that is intimately tied up with the black political class.

So what we are in fact being sold is radical economic transformation ‘lite’, one which plays within the establishment rules to mount an offensive on the establishment itself (what left commentator Jeff Rudin terms “BEE on steroids”). The question is, why this middle of the road response?

The answer, in part, is that resistance to change in South Africa lies not only within the private sector, but also within the bureaucracies of the state itself. It is true that the state is well transformed along gender (52% women) and racial lines (77% black African), and is constituted of a high proportion of highly educated professionals. Yet to look only at these figures is to overlook the essential nature of the South African state bureaucracy. As a bureaucracy the state has not been able to unlock itself from its history as a colonial and Apartheid apparatus.

Despite the very many restructurings and changes the state bureaucracy has endured over the past 22 years it proceeds with the same set of logics regarding how its functions, controls and processes are constituted and exercised. So, in my view, the central question that should be posed at this juncture is; what prevents the bureaucracy from remaking this new ‘radical’ agenda in their own image?

In order to understand a bureaucracy, it is critical to look to its initial conditions, as it reveals how its history informs the memory it carries with it. Bureaucracies are not clean slates, they have histories and these are important. When the bureaucracy is designed for a set of purposes, all of which are focused on maintaining the status quo at the very least, and allowing for incremental changes at the worst, then what are the chances that a radical agenda will successfully be implemented by it?

In the case of South Africa, leadership mirrors the Fanonian analysis of nationalist leaderships’ in Africa, in that while their rhetoric is radical their actions are relatively timid, even mundane in their reproduction of the status quo. Indeed, the economic policies of post-Apartheid South Africa were designed to fit in well with the global Western neoliberal economy and its key institutions (e.g. the IMF and World Bank), and has changed very little from that trajectory over the past 20 years.

Moreover, within the bureaucracy – i.e. from functionaries to middle managers to leaders – the bureaucracy of the liberated post-colony shares an unmistakeable reticence to embark upon new trajectories, precisely because they necessitate deviating from the norm. And this norm brings comfort to the urban middle and lower classes, as well as the urban proletariats. This unfolds while the rural proletariat – and religious and social conservatives – experience the rapid disintegration of their traditional way of life and commensurate value systems.

So a radical change is underway, but it is a different process, one of urban modernity – mislabelled in a reductionist manner – as ‘liberalism’. The reason it is not plain liberalism is that it is a product of spatial, demographic, class and identity changes that are intimately linked with the processes of modernity and urbanisation. The only true radicals that emerge in this context are so extremist in their bearings, arguments and convictions that they strike the fear of God into all reasonable people, who in turn shrink from them and tighten their reigns on whatever small realm of control they possess.

This facilitates the middle class ‘stop the rot’ motivation to block all change, and the office bearers and job-holders within the bureaucracies adopt reactionary positions that steadily erode and outpace attempts to introduce anything radical to the functions, controls and processes they oversee. In turn, leaders respond with authoritarianism and autocratic leadership, and attempt to force through programmes of action, which is then scuppered at different levels within organisations. It appears as though incompetence is the reason for the failure of these new programmes, but that does not tally well with the fact that the public service is generally highly skilled and educated. Something else is occurring; tacit resistance has taken hold.

Here, the bureaucrats draw on their knowledge of process, ‘best practise’ and institutional memory to weigh down radical agendas. The memory of bureaucracy, which is so deeply conditioned within its structures and processes, acts against change, or at least slows it down. The tacit values, beliefs and norms that underlie the functions, controls and processes of bureaucracy, continue to inform practise despite what new policies are put in place. In other words, the bureaucracy is resilient; it resists change, and vary rarely transforms wholly except under extreme pressure or on its own terms.

In cynical terms, the South African state bureaucracy hosts an organisational culture of rules and procedures that is strictly enforced when it is least necessary, yet is loosened when it is most important. That is, it is inflexible when flexibility is necessary and vice versa, and this can facilitate rent-extraction strategies. In the long term this can also facilitate parallel state activities that emerge in response to the restrictions of bureaucracies. The essential point I am making here is that it is not simply constitutionalists versus the proponents of radical change; there is a deeper, underlying constraint on change in the South African state, its bureaucracies.

So in order to adopt a truly radical trajectory, one that seeks to challenge the global and local economic status quo, the key questions that need to be asked need to revolve around what constitutes an innovative state, and what kind of bureaucracy is necessary to facilitate that? That is, a state that can create space for flexibility and adaptive capacity in how it goes about pursuing change.

A senior, renowned colleague of mine at the CSIR in the 2000's used to say,

“You know, the CSIR is great at developing solutions. Then they throw them over the wall and hope they hit a passing problem.”

This statement goes to the heart of the matter. State bureaucracies can do innovation for innovation’s sake, and do it exceptionally well, but they often fail to adequately or competently harness these innovations to create broader impact and change in society at large. This same colleague of mine hence advised me that the only way to go about innovation in the CSIR was essentially to bend the rules and act as a “maverick” would (his words).

This has relevance for the new agenda for radical economic transformation, as its response to the challenges of bureaucracy in South Africa has also been to bend the rules, even violating them outright where necessary (as they see it). Moreover, in response to the bureaucratic resistance they face they have responded by proposing a strategy that responds with the privatisation of key functions and services of the state. Simply put, the process of privatisation become central to the transformation agenda because it takes those functions and services outside of the realm of control of the bureaucratic state to a large extent (i.e. the state becomes a mere collection of executive managers of outsourced functions).

Yet there are many dangers that accompany this kind of approach. It has the potential to erode state capacity instead of transforming it substantively and enabling it to act in innovative ways in support of a radical agenda. This can fast become a self-reinforcing effect, leading to a situation where the state is overly dependent on private sector actors to fulfil its societal mandates. If these private sector actors grow into sizable monopolies and can exert significant power upon the state in turn, the state can essentially be held ransom by the private sector even more than it already is.

Neoliberal capitalism, whether practised by black capitalists or white capitalists, tends to follow the same trajectory; it steadily erodes the capacity of the state under the guise of improved efficiency and lower cost when in reality it inflates cost, drops safety standards and pursues profit as a its central driving principle. One only has to look to failures in privatised education, healthcare, transportation and the like in the USA, for example, to understand the dangers of such an approach. It is not a radical agenda that ensures that ‘nobody goes hungry’; in reality it will likely have the reverse effect.

So the question of what is required for radical economic transformation in South Africa requires closer scrutiny of the structural constraints within society’s institutions, and central to that question is the nature of state bureaucracies that the democratic dispensation inherited from the Apartheid and colonial states. These state bureaucracies were originally premised on an agenda to facilitate extraction of resources of the country so that they can be administered amongst a small minority. These bureaucracies enforced and upheld racial capitalist exploitation and political oppression of the majority in service of that same minority. They are, by their vary original nature, designed to resist changes that seek to effect a redistributive agenda, except on terms that they dictate, and at a pace of change that they feel comfortable with.

Simply overcoming this by moving functions of the state outside of it, and conducting parallel state activities within patronage networks is not the answer to South Africa’s pressing developmental challenges. The answer lies in embarking upon a truly radical transformation of the institutions of society and the state as a whole, so that a new footing can be established from which to move forward, one that significantly breaks with the colonial and Apartheid traditions, and not one that replicates it. 

In that spirit, I will leave the reader a quote to ponder on, from a writer and journalist who has personally witnessed over twenty odd revolutions firsthand: 

"In every revolution, a movement grapples with a structure. The movement attacks the structure, trying to destroy it, while the structure defends itself and tries to extinguish the movement. The two forces, equally powerful, have different properties. The properties of a movement are spontaneity, impulsiveness, dynamic expansiveness—and a short life. The properties of a structure are inertia, resilience, and an amazing, almost instinctive ability to survive. A structure is rather easy to create, and incomparably more difficult to destroy. It can long outlast all the reasons that justified its establishment. Many weak or even fictitious states have been called into being. But states, after all, are structures and none of them will be crossed off the map. There exists a sort of world of structures, all holding one another up. Threaten one and the others, its kindred, rush to its assistance. The elasticity that helps it to survive is another trait of structure. Backed into a corner, under pressure, it can suck in its belly, contract, and wait for the moment when it can start expanding again. Interestingly, such renewed expansion always takes place exactly where there had been a contraction. Structures tend toward a return to the status quo, which they regard as the best of states, the ideal. This trait belies the inertia of structure. The structure is capable of reacting only according to the first program fed into it. Enter a new program—nothing happens, it doesn’t react. It will wait for the previous program. A structure can also act like a roly-poly toy: Just when it seems to have been knocked over, it pops back up. A movement unaware of this property of the structure will wrestle with it for a long time, then grow weak, and in the end suffer defeat."

—Kapuscinksi (Shah of Shahs, 1982)

*** Note that this piece is a product of the thought processes I have been undergoing while writing my next book, which critiques the role of bureaucracies in post-colonial African democracies, as well as in large aid, development and donor organisations that operate on the continent.


[1] For a range of sincere, thoughtful contributions to the debate on radical economic transformation please see the following links:




Thursday, 4 May 2017

Radical Economic Transformation: Political Spin or Radical Agenda?

The past three decades of political spin doctoring has left us with a populist politics that no longer seems to have a centre that holds. Disarray and uncertainty characterises the political domain. At the global level Brexit and Trump have left centrist politics and the global political establishment reeling from shock. Locally, South Africans are caught up with the “Zupta” phenomenon, a term that describes the close relationship between President Jacob Zuma and the Indian born business magnate Gupta family who have quickly become household names, accused of aiding – even mastering – the Zuma-aligned patronage network’s efforts to “capture” the South African state. “State capture” is on everyone’s lips these days in sunny South Africa.

Perhaps it was naive to assume that years and years of neoliberal era spin-doctoring wouldn’t eventually send politics itself spinning spectacularly out of control. And despite the best efforts of moderates and progressive centrists, the gyre seems to be an ever-widening one. Spectacle ‘trumps’ substance in this new political terrain, where the performative has displaced the substantive, and where ‘truth’ is whatever one makes of it. Facts, expert opinion and the like has all come to be profoundly distrusted. It is difficult to steer a course through the noise and turbulence of the politics of the early 21st Century.

So it is of paramount importance to interrogate the new trajectory that the ANC has embarked on, one that promises “radical economic transformation” as a solution to the desperate and critical challenges that South Africa faces 22 years into its transition to a democratic dispensation. Radical economic transformation currently means different things to different people.

To its supporters radical economic transformation seeks to use the state’s large procurement system to boost black industry and business. It is a long overdue intervention in an overly centrist, neoliberal growth programme that has seen inequality widen and unemployment reach disturbing proportions amongst the black working class and the poor (especially amongst the youth) in particular. It is couched in quasi-socialist rhetoric and is delivered with a touch of Fanonist romanticism; as the President recently explained, radical economic transformation means that “nobody will go hungry”.

To its detractors it has been cast as just another ploy to complete the “state capture” program so that the Zuma-led patronage network can enrich themselves at the cost of the nation. It is nothing more than a ruse to deceive ordinary black South Africans that the ANC is acting solely in their interests, and that the infamous Bell-Pottinger public relations machine, and the Gupta’s media outlets – The New Age newspaper and ANN7 satellite television station – have been deployed to spin out the rhetoric of “white monopoly capital” and “radical economic transformation”. In reality, they claim, this is all part of a programme to take complete control of the state’s resources and to administer it for personal gain.

So it is a profoundly binary casting of radical economic transformation that dominates the political spectrum as it currently stands. Perhaps this is to be expected, as the manner in which it has been introduced appears sudden and forceful. Until recently, radical economic transformation was the cause of the ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters, and was dismissed as populist rhetoric (even fascist) by the ANC government, so there is reasonable cause for cynicism at this recent twist of events.

What radical economic transformation means is a work in progress, and it is clear that while there is a conceptual foundation that underlies it – for example, when listening to the new Minister of Finance Malusi Gigaba articulate it in a recent interview at the World Economic Forum in Durban – there is a lot of work still to be done in fleshing it out. So it should come as no surprise that it is currently a framework that is riddled with contradictions.

One of the central contradictions within the new push for radical economic transformation is its overt dependence on the state procurement system. It is contradictory because it effectively amounts to an overwhelming endorsement and promise to expand and privatise the state, that is; where key functions and services are increasingly outsourced to the private sector. In that sense it is a whole-hearted endorsement to neoliberalism as a political and economic ideology; privatisatisation of the state is a key prescription of the neoliberal agenda.

Moreover, in the South African context, this is occurring in tandem with a bloating of the state, and not a shrinkage of it. The state bureaucracy will be expanding while it likely grows its procurement based BEE ‘stimulus package’ at the same time. This presents the very real danger of an expanding but inefficient state taking root due to a top-heavy reproduction of unnecessary bureaucratic agencies that ostensibly oversee outsourced functions and services, but which tend to self-replicate across the state in a self-serving manner. 

This can result in both an excess of rules and procedures, as well as an excess of bureaucrats, placing unnecessary constraints on entrepreneurs, investors and the like. In turn, this would also hamper and unduly constrain the ability to deliver on key public sector functions and services. While regulatory frameworks are critical for ensuring quality of delivery, it is a common rent-seeking practice to over-engineer regulatory frameworks so that rent extraction becomes normative. In order to get things done, one has to have access to those who directly control processes, and they require favours and 'compensation' in order to do so.

While on the surface radical economic transformation may appear to be ‘radical’ in that it creates the perception of a left-orientated programme to take control of the state in order to better distribute the country’s resources and administer the benefits from them (i.e. more equitably), in reality it is far from a leftist approach. Rather, it is one in which the state expands as a giant corporate executive that oversees a range of outsourced public functions and services. Critically, this new programme of radical economic transformation does not seek to build state capacity to deliver services, perform functions and deliver public goods by itself.

As alluded to earlier, introducing inefficiencies of this potential magnitude into both the state and the private sector creates space for rent-seeking and the manipulation of bureaucratic processes and systems, for example; ‘reverse fronting’ (i.e. BEE 'tenderpreneurs' acting as brokers for public sector work to the broader private sector) and other negative tactics such as kickbacks, bribes, etc. The business of BEE may become more to do with administering state resources rather than addressing the needs of those who are most in need of state support, that is; growing black business and entrepreneurship, alleviating poverty, stabilising household budgets, improving and ensuring service provision, protecting citizens from risky financialisation practises, creating employment, expanding the skills base, ensuring welfare, and guaranteeing safety and security.

One worrying scenario is that the 100 black industrialists that are touted to be created by the procurement based ‘stimulus package’ are unable, or do not attempt, to expand into the broader non-state related private sector, precisely because the fundamentals of the skewed market have not been addressed at a systemic level. Banks, for example, may lend to a new black industrialist who is covered by state guarantees in their dealings with the state, but they may be reticent to throw their support behind the new black industrialist when they decide to make an attempt at penetrating the broader market. Should this prove to be the case, it is conceivable that the new 100 black industrialists may become more focused on the state to facilitate their growth, resulting in increased competition for state led deals, eventually resulting in the growth of black state-dependent monopolies. As a system, neoliberalism is notorious for how well it supports oligarchic and monopolistic systems, so it should come as no surprise that a stimulus package that – at its core – is devoted to outsourcing state functions and services, would result in their monopolisation.

Moreover, if the outsourcing of state functions increases, then it makes sense that the size of the state should decrease. The alternative – which is important to consider here – is an expanding professional state that retains significant capacity to deliver its key services and perform its key functions. A professional state that can deliver services from policy to planning to delivery (i.e. the entire delivery chain) is an substantively different entity from one that is configured as an executive that manages outsourced functions and services. 

Which way to go requires serious debate, and anyone who is truly left-oriented would be extremely troubled about a ‘radical’ empowerment program that is premised on the neoliberal drive towards privatisation. Simply put, the longer the chain of delivery, the less efficiency and the more the opportunities for rent-seeking; predatory capitalism does not care whether it exploits the state or the consumer, as long as the profits keep flowing.

Moreover, while an efficient state is necessary, efficiency should not come at the cost of the states’ capacity to deliver services and perform key public sector functions in the long term. That is, I am not making an efficiency-based argument for the regulation of state functions and services by ‘market’ oriented principles. Yet efficiency is important i.e. if we seek to deliver a realistic and workable new socio-economic compact where everyone enjoys equitable access, mobility and opportunity, where services – especially critical ones such as healthcare and education – are unquestionable rights, a society where everybody enjoys a basic quality of life that is fair and ensures human dignity, one where the resources of the country are effectively leveraged in service of its people, and where historical injustices are unquestionably acknowledged and faithfully and effectively acted upon.

In order to deliver on such a mandate, it is more or less certain that an efficient and competent state is required, so that the government that relies on it to oversee radical changes in society can do so in reality (as opposed to merely rhetorically). That is, to go beyond intention and actually deliver on this kind of radical vision, it is only reasonable to expect that a professional state – and not just an executive state – would be a prerequisite. So in the current context, that is – a bloated state that increasingly outsources its functions and services – it is not immediately conceivable that the desired kind of radical economic transformation is possible.

Yet if one looks to the public sector, it has clearly been expanding at a fast pace. Public sector employment grew from 2.16 million in 2008 to 2.69 million in 2014 (i.e. 2.37 million jobs in government and 322,960 in state owned enterprises). Between 2001 and 2012, while the primary sectors lost 720,000 jobs, while the tertiary sector grew by 2,72 million jobs. Most of this tertiary sector growth was in community, social and personal services i.e. in the public sector. Growth in employment in the public sector has consisted, in large part, of finance management positions, while growth in engineering and professional positions has been modest and has remained stagnant in some cases. This reflects a trend towards building executive and not professional capacity within the state.

The public sector procurement budget is around R500 billion (it was over R800 billion for the 2010-2011 period), and the public wage bill is estimated at over R500 billion (i.e. a third of the overall budget or around 12% of GDP). While the public service is generally highly educated, admirably gender transformed (52% women) and racially transformed (i.e. 77% black African) and averages at 41 years old, and hence already plays a critical role in the transformation agenda of the country as constitutionally endorsed, it’s sheer size and scope of outsourced functions requires closer scrutiny and attention, especially in light of the stated means through which radical economic transformation is being proposed. If only the state and state-supported businesses are transforming, then can transformation be spoken of in real societal terms?

It is clear that the path that radical economic transformation is taking may be unsustainable, in that it may not produce the results in the private sector that it desires, and that it may result in unnecessary ‘bloating’ of the state. So it is important to distinguish political spin from a real political agenda when it comes to talk of radical economic transformation. Political spin is typically when a political agenda is presented to people in order to mask the real agenda, or at least to dress it up differently so as to make it palatable.

In the political moment we find ourselves in there are many truths that can explain how we arrived at this point. One such truth is the abject failure of transformation in the private sector and in former white institutions of various kinds throughout society (e.g. in the higher education sector), and even in many parastatals. The dismally skewed ratios of white senior managers, fronting, high black staff turnovers, lack of diversity oriented transformation and plain structural and systemic racism that goes largely unacknowledged; is itself largely to blame for the emergence of this new vision for radical economic transformation. In short, the lack of transformation in the formal economy and institutions in society has led (some would say forced) black professionals and entrepreneurs to throw their support behind an agenda that gives up on integrating into historically white businesses and institutions altogether.

This should send alarm bells ringing within white society, but they are drowned out by the sirens that warn of the impending “Zanufication” of the ANC. Already begrudging and disgruntled, especially with BEE, affirmative action, and the uncertainties associated with political upheaval, social change and economic uncertainty – which threatens their security, assets, investments and savings – they are unable to discern the clear signal that is being sent to them. That is, their rejection of affirmative action is finally being returned in kind; black South Africa is tired of knocking on their door and is now going their own way with the power and resources that is immediately available to them.

As a minority, white people still own a large proportion of the economy (i.e. around the same percentage of the stock market as blacks do, although the percentage of black South Africans outnumber white South Africans by an order of magnitude i.e. approximately 80% to 8% respectively). White society, however, is oblivious to its special position in South African society, and where it is inherited from (i.e. structurally and racially unjust, exploitative systems such as colonialism and apartheid). White society is too occupied with their own fears to think about what role they have played in generating this new radical trajectory. Their tacit, but systematic resistance to transformation and change over the past 22 years, and their insistence on accommodating transformation only on their terms, has contributed – in great part – to the emergence of both the  populist rhetoric of exclusion and the proposed substantive program for radical economic transformation.

The ‘deafness’ that has persisted is perhaps no surprise. White society in South Africa is largely emotionally and spatially removed from black South African society. And when they do endure honest encounters with black South Africans they are uneasy and defensive, quick to dismiss experiences of discrimination and systemic and structural racism. They often simply cannot move beyond denial and are hence wholly unable to 'put themselves in the shoes' of their countrymen. They retreat, as they have the privilege of being able to do so.

For black african South Africans in particular, the realities are too stark to bear, and too densely and intricately woven into their experience of South African society to retreat. They have to confront it. On the other side of confrontation they envisage substantive liberation. So they must move forward and make radical changes if necessary. The profound departure from the rainbow nation narrative is precisely that black people have come to believe that only they alone can bring about the changes that they so desperately need and desire.

Yet how we find agreement on what those radical changes are, and how we are to go about it, is an equally important question. If we are to call ourselves a society or a nation, then we should all have a say and play a role in constructing our future. That is plain common sense political realism and not altruistic fantasy. Surely we should be inviting the best ideas about how to achieve a new society? Or are we to allow are futures to be determined by elites who decide what is best for us?

There is surely going to be a lot of political spin in this moment. The question is whether we allow ourselves to become so tightly spun that we separate and occupy different orbits, different realities, and lose the ground beneath our feet, eventually spinning out of control; where the centre does not hold, is neither here nor there, and only those who profit out of chaos and division have a viable interest in our new future.

Thankfully, there are some well-thought through conceptual contributions doing the rounds, attempting to make sense of a way forward towards a society that has successfully broken with its historical legacy of dispossession, exploitation and exclusion. The question is whether the debate on radical economic transformation will be opened up to allow for a diverse representation of perspectives, views and creative insights, or whether it will become the prerogative of a few elite individuals and power-brokers who lock themselves away and design our future for us.