South Africa Cannot Pivot to Prosperity Without Truly Brave Leaders

South Africa is locked in a crisis entwining governance, its economy and politics. Will its leadership prove up to the task?

17 January 2022 ·   8 min read

South Africa Cannot Pivot to Prosperity Without Truly Brave Leaders

Politics is the art of the possible. It has always been necessary for leaders to walk a difficult path, as Bismarck's aphorism describes, searching for what he termed “the attainable, the next best”.

Yet making tough choices is the mark of great leadership, as is seeking the right moment to do so. Crisis offers such an occasion, an opportunity to drive changes that otherwise would be politically unpalatable.

South Africa is locked in such a crisis — entwining governance, its economy and politics. Will its leadership prove up to the task?

For the new year has begun inauspiciously with the Parliament buildings on fire. Aside from the obvious symbolism of institutional weakness, the fire serves as a reminder of the dysfunction that has come to characterise government.

Fire doors were open. Security cameras were not monitored. Alarms only went off after firefighters had already arrived at the scene. Police failed to guard the building. A report after an earlier fire advising that action must be taken to avoid a disaster, was ignored.

Added to this are dark hints that the fire is related to the battles within the ANC following the arrest of a man who is believed to have deliberately started the fire and who is said to be embedded in one way or another within the dysfunctional security apparatus.

Government, it seems, is barely able to govern, never mind chart a brave course to deal with the country's many travails.

What is at the root of this manifest display of weakness? Why were looters able to run amok in 2021 without intervention by the police until the country was aflame? Why is the government unable to take the difficult decisions that are needed to get the economy growing and to stop unemployment? Why does tax collection rise while there is “no money” for anything, even just keeping an eye on Parliament?

The answer is complex but there is a common thread running through it all: administrative competence has taken second place to party deployment for more than two decades and the state is bereft of the skills needed to manage a relatively sophisticated modern democracy. And even if there was a more effective agency in place in the form of a responsive government, policy direction and content is not fit for the sort of economic growth South Africa now needs to get itself out of its deepening high-unemployment, weak-governance hole.

The system of cadre deployment, the subject of stinging criticism from the opposition and from the leading intellectual lights within the ANC itself, continues to be the source of ineptitude and corruption. Even Cyril Ramaphosa, believed to be the party's best hope at reform, has testified at the Zondo Commission that cadre deployment is here to stay.

“Cadre deployment cannot be faulted in principle; it is a common feature of democratic practice around the world. But we would concede that there are weaknesses in its practical implementation that make the case for greater clarity, both within political parties and the state,” he said.

This is, of course, not the case. While political appointments to senior positions within government are common in democracies, this seldom extends to all layers of the civil service, including those requiring technical competence, as it does in South Africa where political loyalty trumps all else.

The result of this sort of statement is that there is dimming hope that the ANC is capable of understanding and managing the complex reforms needed to save South Africa from what is an accelerating slide into failure. Put differently, the commitment to party and power routinely trumps governing in the people's interests.

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There are, of course, bright spots. Ramaphosa has tried gamely to breathe new life into the corpse of the criminal justice system which was severely damaged by his predecessor, although results have been slow to come and major perpetrators of State Capture and corruption remain out of jail. Treasury and the Reserve Bank remain committed to holding the fiscal line, although they are up against a bureaucracy with a voracious appetite for the financially deadly combination of more consumption expenditure and lower productivity.

But the minor cult that held that the “good people” in the ANC would awaken from their hypnotic state and rally the party to implement economic reforms needed to boost growth, has lost almost all of its followers and many within the party openly express their dismay and even say that the only hope for the country lies in the ANC losing power. The statement on the judiciary by Lindiwe Sisulu, if nothing else, illustrates the (lack of) commitment by some ANC grandees to the basics of constitutional democracy, and the prioritisation of party over state.

The promised land envisaged by Nelson Mandela and the constitutional architects which began to take shape through to the mid-2000s, is now a nostalgic memory.

In echoes of the most egregious of Africa's post-colonial leadership, money, it seems from the Zondo Commission, works better than political ideals as an incentive for action. “He was quickly schooled in corruption,” said Mobutu Sese Seko's deputy as chief of staff in the Congolese Army, “passively if not actively. From the beginning instead of trying to use military authority he would try to arrange things with money, an envelope. Money works better than authority.”

But that money is running out in South Africa, at least if a semblance of fiscal health is to be retained.

The appeal of populism as a means of retaining power offers another scenario. But so hopeless has the ANC's leadership become that it cannot even pivot to populism with credibility. The constitutional amendment to enable land expropriation without compensation, which has given new life to failing liberation movements such as Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe, failed to make it through Parliament as the ANC bungled the politics.

The bitter irony is that this failure was one of the few highlights worth celebrating in a dreary year of decline and rudderless leadership.

The temptation to give up hope and join the silent, but it must be noted, increasingly violent, extra-parliamentary majority is large. The problem seems so overwhelming. Except for a smattering of cities and provinces such as the Western Cape, where governance continues, it seems that every town, village and metro is descending into the mire of hopelessness.

Desperation calls for divine intervention. A sign outside the town of Warrenton in the Northern Cape offers a message from God: “Ek Kom Gou.” The route along the N12 otherwise offers little hope, a series of squalid settlements hollowed out by a combination of collapsed governance and failing economy.

Taxi associations and trucking unions own the roads, explaining why there are so few trains operating. Open shakedowns of the kind perpetrated by the mafia in its prime in construction and mining are the norm. The primary operating principle behind the political economy is not to promote growth, it seems, but to ensure political loyalty through whatever means possible.

In short, a slow-burning anarchy has been loosed on the land, one that signposts inevitable failure. The fact that there remains order is, in large part, due to the actions of a few fearless institutions of accountability, the few professionals who continue within the public service and ordinary citizens who employ private agencies to educate their children, provide security and give medical treatment.

In an environment where the government has scaled back the matric pass mark to an effective 30%, the future seems pretty hopeless.

But to succumb to cynicism is to hand victory not just to the growing legion of naysayers but to the looters and the criminals, and to assign the country to decades of decline which will result in misery on a scale this country has not seen since the depths of apartheid.

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There is only one path open: to work actively and tirelessly to ensure that those who share the country's foundational democratic values and want to see functional, effective governance, a growing economy and a return to social development, get together and start to take charge.

Such a clarion call is not for “regime change” so much as for active citizens to take their destiny back into their hands and to take governance back from the corrupt, the inept and the incompetent. The leaders of such a movement must come from the ranks of the brave members of government who sacrificed their careers to stop State Capture, from the opposition which played its role by relentlessly exposing corruption and incompetence and from the institutions of civil society, which have stood tall to defend the Constitution and fight tax abuse.

The collective actions of these individuals undertaking actions of conscience have laid the basis for a new anti-corruption, anti-State Capture, anti-police incompetence, anti-incompetence politics in a post-ANC South Africa.

But while it is clear what such a movement stands against, what is less clear is what it will stand for. The task the country faces today is to build a new politics united against State Capture and graft, but also a series of policies that will get the country facing forwards and meeting its deep economic and social challenges.

The outlines of what such a movement might positively stand for are also clear:

  1. Rational economic policy choices that remove the regulatory and state friction holding back investment. Primary among these is certainty around law and regulation. These reforms allow greater competition, greater labour participation and the rise of a new entrepreneurial class free from the heavy hand of the state;
  2. Law and order. It is legitimate for citizens in a democracy to expect the state, within the bounds of a liberal democratic constitution, to act decisively and with force, when this is justified, against those who are breaking the law. Citizens want the streets to be safe, public infrastructure such as roads, rail and electricity protected and the bad guys in jail;
  3. An effective, functional civil service. Cadre deployment must end and be replaced by meritocratic appointments throughout the civil service. While an argument might have been made at the birth of democracy that transformation is at odds with merit, this is no longer the case 28 years later;
  4. A shared vision for a prosperous future. The navel gazing of political infighting and corruption has distracted the country from looking up at the horizon and understanding how South Africa fits into a rapidly changing, technology-disrupted world. It is time to build a national consensus on how South Africa fits into this world, and how skills are being developed to meet future challenges.

It's not divine intervention that we need to achieve this, but leadership.

Supporters defend President Ramaphosa's caution in not doubling down on reforms to keep the ANC intact and ward off the Radical Economic Transformation faction. Valid as it may be, this “he may be flawed but he's the best we've got” argument is a slow boat to failure. It may delay the splintering of the ANC between the RET and more rational factions. But the clock is ticking and a failure to attract investment to spur growth might, conversely, see the RET faction take over the ANC.

A failure to take decisive action now to pivot towards growth, order, competence and a shared vision will see the continuation of the present dysfunction where ministers openly express their love of fossil fuels, where major roads are blockaded while police stand by like spectators, where taxi associations provide “law and order” and the economy continues to slide into disaster.

Iron will and firm leadership are in short supply. What is surprising is how few people do make a lasting mark. Why so few Trumans, willing to take the tough stand, Thatchers, willing to break the class and glass ceilings, Martin Luther Kings, ready to walk in the valley and suffer, or Gandhis, treading barefoot to dine one night with Muslim, the next with Hindu? These are paths available to many; why do so few leaders walk them in a time of peril and possibility?

A tale of a convention of surgeons may prompt some action. At the occasion, four surgeons were asked: “On which type of patient do you prefer to operate?” The first answered: “Electricians. Everything inside is colour-coded, and easy to follow.” The second, thinking, said: “Librarians. It's all carefully catalogued and indexed, easy to replace.” The third responded: “Plumbers. It's all in a logical sequence of bends, pipes and U-tubes.” Finally, the last surgeon replied: “It's easy. Politicians. There is no spine, and the top is interchangeable with the bottom.”

The simple answer to the current South African condition is for leadership to display some spine, and double down on reforms. Without that, failure is the only option.

This article originally appeared on Daily Maverick

Photo: GovernmentZA Flickr