Thursday, 26 October 2017

The Politics of Patronage: Rents, Power and Transformation

What is Developmental Neopatrimonialism?

The African political condition has a label. Neopatrimonialism, as it is termed, refers to a system of rule by an individual and/or political party that where loyalty is predicated on the distribution of economic rents to ‘clients’. These are individuals, groups, networks and organisations that are linked in some way or another, that is; through kinship, common purpose or agendas, social networks, and so forth. 

Those in power and those within the patronage networks are informally linked, even though the distribution of rents may occur through the formal bureaucratic systems of the state. Hence, states where neopatrimonialism is prevalent are considered hybrid systems, where formal and informal networks operate to secure power and access to rents and resources. While neopatrimonialism has taken root in many different parts of the world, postcolonial African states are – by and large – regarded as typified by neopatrimonialism.

In classical economics and politics, neopatrimonialism is frowned upon. It is regarded as symptomatic of bad governance, misallocation of resources, maladministration, corruption and other ills that plague dysfunctional states. This is especially the case where Africa is concerned. Debates rage, however, on everything from the developmental utility of neopatrimonialism, to the precise definitions and typologies that the deployment of the term should be restricted to (based on empirical evidence).

As recently as 2011, Tim Kelsall argued[1] that under certain conditions neo-patrimonialism can yield positive economic growth and commensurate developmental outcomes, stating that, “crucial to making neopatrimonialism work for development in Africa has been a system for centralising economic rents and gearing their management to the long term”. Kelsall, cautions, however, that “developmental patrimonialism has a limited shelf life and will not be appropriate everywhere” and stresses that it is not a “’one-size fits all’ solution”.

He list three reasons why. First, that neopatrimonialism seems to work best in the least developed countries where “relatively simple economic structures are more responsive to relationship-based governance”. Second, that it is unlikely to work in all political systems, and that in countries with regular democratic change rent administration will likely be oriented towards short-term outcomes and that centralisation of rents in these cases “would be likely to prove very controversial and damaging”. Third, that the centralisation of rents in countries where a few large “ethnic groups” compete for power would likely prove “exceedingly difficult”.

The view that neopatrimonial developmentalism may yield positive developmental outcomes is regarded as a heterodox economics view (i.e. opposed to classical economics). It is important to acknowledge that developmental neopatrimonialism is, in reality, a diagnosis and not an approach. It is a phenomenon that economists are in the process of understanding, and not a theoretical prescription for how states should function. That is, it is not normative in its orientation. That is the reason why Kelsall cautions so strongly against its use as a prescription beyond strictly bounded conditions.

Neopatrimonialsim: A Prescription for South Africa?

Where South Africa is concerned the deployment of developmental neopatrimonialism as both a diagnostic framework, as well as a prescriptive framework, should be undertaken with great caution. There are many reasons why South Africa cannot be understood or classified in terms of developmental patrimonialism.

It should be self-evident that in the case of South Africa does not meet the criteria for neopatrimonial developmentalism even though traces of neopatrimonialism do inhabit the political and business realms. South Africa is; (1) is relatively highly developed in relation to the rest of Africa (indeed, it is regarded as a transitional economy alongside countries such as Brazil), (2) has strong democratic processes and independent state institutions, and (3) is ethnically, racially diverse and relatively class diverse, and cosmopolitan. These attributes place it outside of the neopatrimonial state that Tim Kelsall writes about.

Yet, there is an emerging current that seeks to justify neopatrimonial developmentalism as a legitimate framework for the transformative agenda that the ANC seeks to achieve. This relies on the assumption that the ANC, with its electoral dominance, may serve as a centralised administrator of rents in service of a transformative agenda, led by a strong, uncompromising leader or leadership.

It is true that the electoral dominance of the African National Congress, which has ruled since the advent of democracy in 1994, may offer some hope of centralised administration of rents into the long term as a developmental strategy for the future. However, given the fragmented and fractured internal politics of the ANC it is a vain hope to imagine that the ANC would continue ruling unchallenged and without significant internal splitting in the medium to long terms. Indeed, open dissent and threats of imminent split from the ANC tripartite alliance are now common, everyday occurrences, with both the Council of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) expressing daily outrage at the status quo of the ANC’s current leadership. The ANC may have ruled for twenty-two years, but it will not likely rule for as long moving forward.

Moreover, the developmental utility of neopatrimonialism is largely gauged and assessed in economic terms.  The limitations of adopting an economic worldview on what is a profoundly social and political matter must be made clear and reconciled if any kind of neopatrimonial developmental state is to be socially and politically transformative in the true sense i.e. enabling the destabilisation and reconfiguration of inherited hierarchies, power imbalances and structural inequalities that prevail in South Africa.

Should the neopatrimonial developmental state merely reinforce and/or recreate similar hierarchical disparities (i.e. in terms of power, wealth, inequality, access, mobility, etc.) then it remains largely a political ruse that in reality masks a program that reproduces the status quo. And it is clear in South Africa right now that the status quo is untenable. Twenty-two years into the ‘new’ democratic dispensation, social and political fragmentation and national disunity prevail alongside deep political turmoil and uncertainty. The state and polis have become stuck. Concerned politicians are looking outward to society for the solution to the political crisis. They want a revival of 1980’s style rolling mass action to place pressure on the ANC leadership. Thus far, nothing has yielded significant results. The long road, it is evident, has become the priority. Clearing up the mess, however, will likely take a long time.

The ever present danger of a shape-shifting state is an important and critical factor to account for in any conception of South Africa as a neopatrimonial developmental state. South Africa is historically characterised by high levels of structural inequality that delineates along unmistakeably racial lines today. South Africa today still displays its apartheid inheritance in patterns of wealth, poverty, spatial segregation, land and housing ownership, access, mobility and drastic socio-economic inequality.

Indeed, the postcolonial Apartheid state relied on the administration of rents to maintain minority rule, and to maintain economic dominance of the white settler minority. Rents were administered in service of lifting poor whites out of poverty and into stable, relatively middle class livelihoods and incomes. Rents were also administered to create and maintain the Afrikaans private sector. Race-based laws and ideologies were instrumental in ensuring that both the state and the private sector reinforced and reproduced this program of white power. This entrenched structural race-based inequality in South Africa both socially and economically.

While the Apartheid state did not strictly fit the mould of developmental neopatrimonialism, it did administer rents as a transformative socio-political and developmental agenda. It appears as though, the same logic is being applied to actualise the transformative agenda that the ANC seeks to bring about today i.e. ‘radical economic transformation’. Radical economic transformation seeks to create a new black industrial class (i.e. “100 black industrialists”) through administering the R500Bn state procurement budget preferentially to black business. This agenda seeks to take black economic empowerment beyond mere ownership in the financial economy, to full participation in the productive economy of South Africa. 

The agenda to increase black ownership of the productive economy of South Africa is not, in itself, problematic. What is problematic is the notion that this will automatically alleviate the suffering of the majority of poor black people in South Africa; that their lives will be transformed through this agenda. Moreover, it is also problematic to embrace a neopatrimonial model, in which rents are administered through a small power-elite, led by a ‘strongman’ styled ruler. In my view, this perspective is disastrous and anti-democratic. Real radical transformation would strengthen both the political and economic processes through which South African democracy is administered and not treat them as trade-offs.

That is, we would not seek to weaken the political realm in order to strengthen black economic participation. We are being presented with a false binary here. We should be seeking to strengthen both bottom-up, grassroots participation in political decision-making and governance, and boost economic inclusion at the same time. That is what would constitute a truly transformative agenda.

Developmental patrimonialism is a poor diagnostic and prescriptive framework for South Africa. It is a diagnosed phenomenon. It is not visionary, and is not – in any sense – new. It is merely newly diagnosed and appraised. It is, in many ways, a 20th Century framework, one that is an extremely poor normative framework for where we should be headed in the 21st Century. The danger in adopting it as a prescriptive framework – in any measure – is that it may reproduce more of the same while promising a different result.

To get something new, you have to think and act anew. Developmental neopatrimonialism, as a prescriptive framework, is an idea that is hopelessly out of touch with the 21st Century; its movements (i.e. political, technological, social, cultural, etc.) and its potentials. The neglected direction is simply asking; what kind of democracy is desirable and possible in South Africa that can ensure a better future for all who live within it given the potentials afforded by 21st Century developments? It is asking how democracy can evolve to hold power to account, and ensure that power and wealth is more fairly and evenly distributed throughout society.

The means to hold power to account, being active in the space of power, and thereby revitalising the polis are emerging in the 21st Century. Liquid democracy, radical municipalism and other visions for enhanced local power, and inclusive participatory-based developmentalism and governance are some examples. In these new forms of democracy, power is increasingly decentralised and distributed. Developmental and political visions are to be informed and regulated by new forms of grassroots power and not merely acquiescent to the state and elected government. They are attempts at finding the means to overcome the failures of representative democracy and the difficulties of direct democracy. They are attempts to move democracy beyond the status of the “best-worst system” as it is regularly referred to as these days.

It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. In this spirit, it is time to take up a new challenge; that of evolving our democracy into a system that is truly progressive in how it allocates and administers power and decision-making. Democracy in South Africa needs to be closer to the people, and in order for this to become a reality that goes beyond merely holding local Indaba’s and conducting formulating Integrated Development Plans. 21st Century ideas, technologies and systems need to be embraced.

We are increasingly living in a world where new possibilities are emerging and will inevitably impact the norms that prevailed in the 20th Century. True leadership, that is in touch with and acutely aware of the changes that are unfolding in this century and their vast implications, would recognise that need to begin testing and building the mechanisms that will enable democracy to evolve and meet the needs of the 21st Century. While the benefits of neopatrimonial developmentalism are acknowledged as actualisable only under very specific – and limited – conditions, the possibilities that the 21st Century offers to improve democratic processes and practises are many and varied. Surely this warrants closer attention, scrutiny and consideration? We cannot merely consider old prescriptions when facing a fundamentally new future. Surely our innovative and creative capacity should be put to work in service of what the future offers rather than the past.

[1] Kelsall, T. (2011). Developmental Patrimonialism? Rethinking Business and Politics in Africa, Africa Power and Politics, Policy Brief 02, June 2011.