African Press International (API)

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South Africa Glimpse into the shape of government after Mbeki (commentary)

Posted by African Press International on May 24, 2008

Publisher: Korir, source.Business Day (South Africa), by Karima Brown

Calls by the South African Communist Party (SACP) for President Thabo Mbeki to step down have hogged the headlines ? and will almost certainly feature at today?s meeting of the African National Congress?s (ANC?s) national executive committee meeting.

But it is the SACP?s call for a major reorganisation of the state that is likely to provide a glimpse into what a post-Mbeki government might look like.

Its proposals have not yet been formally discussed within the ANC, but they provide some insight into the thinking of an increasingly influential ally in the ANC-led tripartite alliance and could point to changes to how the state functions, when Jacob Zuma assumes office next year. Many of the proposals floated at the recent alliance summit enjoy broad support among the ANC?s power brokers and, if accepted, could have far-reaching implications for the shape of the government after next year?s elections.

Efforts to restructure the government and state departments are, of course, nothing new. In 2005, the Mbeki administration tried to streamline government departments and ministries, but with little success. Instead, what we saw was a bloated presidency that usurped most policy functions from line departments and got bogged down during the critical implementation phase. Then there was much talk about the possibility of creating so called ?super ministries?, especially in the economic cluster ministries, but in the end little came of the idea.

The crisis of governance in SA is essentially a crisis of choice between two models of development and, flowing from that, what sort of governance and state structure is best suited to deliver on SA?s social development goals. The SACP?s push for an overhaul of the state should thus be located in this paradigm. There is broad agreement about what the development goals are, and they were best articulated in the declaration of the Growth and Development Summit. Among them is to halve unemployment and increase foreign and domestic investment. While the summit gave the vision for development, the detail ? which has largely been left to the government to fill in ? has been bedeviled by many kinds of upheavals. This reflects the fact that filling in the detail involves making ideologically driven choices not inherent in the goals articulated by the summit?s developmental vision.

Hence, we have today?s dichotomy between what the government refers to as the ?developmental state? on the one hand, and the belief of many social activists, and even within the tripartite alliance, in a socially embedded ?democratic state?. The modes of operation inherent in both these state models are at the heart of the tension between the government and communities over service delivery. The SACP?s proposal for the development of high-level ?planning capacity? in the state can be seen as a response to what it regards as the shortcomings in the government?s developmental state.

While the SACP argues that such ?planning capacity? be situated in the Presidency, ANC insiders have also floated the idea of creating a separate ?central planning ministry?, which would cut across line functions to drive the developmental agenda of the state. While the nitty gritty of this idea is likely to still be the subject of much debate, there appears to be convergence around the idea that this planning capacity should be able to co-ordinate, discipline and harmonise key strategic interventions, aligning infrastructure, industrial policy, energy policy, macroeconomic stability, safety and security, and international relations and trade. ?It can?t be that the president gets briefed only at cabinet level. You need a mechanism that cuts across departments in order to boost and build the capacity of the developmental state,? says SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande.

The call for the reorganisation of government departments, including a proposal that the minerals and energy department and the agriculture and land affairs department each be split into two departments, is also likely to find a sympathetic ear. SA?s energy crises and its attendant challenges give currency to those who argue that energy is a strategic resource that should be run as a standalone ministry. The SACP?s view on splitting some departments has already found support among ANC leaders, many of whom are also calling for a restructuring of the education ministry. Some suggest SA should follow the Canadian model, which separates higher education off into a standalone ministry, as a possible solution to dealing with SA?s education challenges.

However, all of these proposals are based on the notion that the state has the capacity to drive these initiatives, when this is simply not the case. The dearth of skills across provinces and in the municipalities will hamper efforts to reconfigure state departments, never mind creating new ones. The constitutional requirements on equity employment also pose huge challenges. But the push for a developmental state paradigm also needs to be interrogated. To date, the government has never formally defined what it means when it refers to a ?developmental state?, which makes a dispassionate evaluation of the concept and its use in the South African context difficult.

Under Mbeki, it was possible to glean from throwaway remarks and policy directions that the South African ?developmental state? places a great degree of emphasis on technical intervention. Its philosophy of operation is managerial and top-down, allowing minimal buy-in, and is distrustful of popular participation. It is instructive that developmental state models come from the east ? from Japan?s postwar military regime-driven economic boom, to the later rise of the Asian tigers. All these countries were examples of stellar but exclusively state-driven economic growth. Socially and culturally, they are countries without SA?s deep participatory culture, nor its history of popular struggle. They therefore provide an authoritarian state model totally unsuited to SA?s conditions, which leaves many puzzled about why a government born from deeply democratic roots should be determined to import this centralist development strategy. There is, after all, no shortage of alternative development paths.

The social democracies of western Europe were fashioned from traditions of popular involvement that are far closer to our own history. Project Consolidate, which is the government?s flagship strategy to rescue municipalities from collapse, is a prime example of the commandist approach. While it has had some success and made good on its promise of delivery, there is the danger that the government equates delivery with democracy. This has led to it falling victim to a legitimacy and credibility crisis caused by the top-down approach and the limitations inherent in parachuting technical support in to often political problems.

Advocates of the democratic state argue that this localised conflict would not be a feature of our politics if the government involved citizens in a participatory system that went beyond electing representatives, but encompassed also the policy-making process that state technocrats currently guard jealously for themselves. The People?s Budget Campaign is an example of this alternative policy making model, in which social advocacy groups present workable budget choices and are required to do more than present the treasury with their annual wish list.

While there is merit in this argument, in a policy environment characterised by this binary logic, it is possible to romanticise public participation. The result of this approach is often ?process paralysis?, in which the government is unable to act ? not because of a lack of democratic buy-in, but because its actions will imperil power arrangements and illegitimate, but vested, interests. If we accept the need for a greater state role in ensuring SA reaches its development goals, then the nature of the state at all levels needs to be transformed. The community mobilisation seen recently around service delivery is proof that ordinary people are eager to fashion their own development path, in partnership with whatever government they elect.


African Press International – API

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