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  • Ivor Chipkin

Election 2019: It's not just about individuals!

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

In the run-up to the election, what are political party’s saying about fixing Government?

There is much anticipation that South Africa is on the cusp of a ‘new dawn’. And much anxiety that this will prove to be another long night. We are transfixed by personalities.

Will a vote for the ANC strengthen the hand of Cyril Ramaphosa or Ace Magashule? Is Malema the voice of fascism in South Africa or the face of the radical left? Does Maimane even exist?

Mcebisi Jonas rightly sees in this ‘cult of the personality’ a symptom of our preoccupation with heroes. It has something too of a religious or messianic quality. We are looking for a saviour, someone to rise from the waves, slay our enemies and bring prosperity to the land.

The preoccupation with personalities in 2019 is a sign too that the momentum of 2017 has stalled. Two years ago, civil-society organisations, business groupings, politicians and some political parties were starting to understand that the mass corruption of the Zuma period revealed flaws in the structure of government. State Capture was not just about individuals and their greedy, criminal endeavours. There was impetus for reforming and modernising government. Three areas stood out:

· The extent of outsourcing in South Africa, together with the highly decentralised system of public procurement made the delivery of services and goods vulnerable to intense political and economic competition for tenders. It also created numerous opportunities for corruption.

· The power of the President to appoint heads of many key state institutions made them vulnerable to his or her personal whims – especially damaging when the President was prepared to act unconstitutionally and in his or her interests.

· The failure in the 1990s to professionalise the public service by, for example, making recruitment meritocratic intensified the politicisation of many departments and agencies at all levels of government.

There have been some very important developments since the fall of Jacob Zuma. Parliament and various commissions of enquiry have shed light on the corruption and maladministration that occurred in State-Owned Enterprises, in SARS and in the Public Investment Corporation. The High Level Panel Review of Intelligence has found evidence that the State Security Agency served factional, political interests and that the Special Operations Unit was involved in the illegal surveillance and harassment of activists and researchers. There are energetic moves afoot to remove those implicated in state capture from company boards and from government enterprises.

Yet despite this, there has been a slide away from public administration thinking. It is dramatically evident in political party manifestos, especially of South Africa’s rising (red) star.

The ANC’s manifesto is a particularly dreary affair. It has a chapter on ‘Capable, Honest Government’ that refers to the need to re-organise the way government interacts with the people, rebuild and improve local government, and improve public accountability and responsiveness. There is hardly any analysis of what went wrong in these areas and no detail about how to re-organise, re-build and improve. Instead there are lists of exhortations to strengthen, develop, implement, set-up and so on. There is nothing about the way public servants and of municipal officials are recruited. There is nothing about public procurement and the scale of outsourcing in government, other than a promise to “ develop systems to ensure that we build a more transparent and more open tender system”.

The reason for these omissions become clear almost straight away. Ultimately, all problems come down to corruption. All that is needed is a magical wand called ‘anti-corruption’.

The DA manifesto is only marginally better. Like the ANC its proposals on how to build a capable state lean heavily on measures to deal with corruption. The party proposes a new corruption unit. The DA will take steps to ensure the independence of prosecutors. It will severely punish corrupt officials. There are some ideas about making public procurement more transparent. Ultimately, the paucity of ideas is surprising from a party that positions itself as the benchmark of ‘good governance’.

The EFF manifesto is brimming with (1950s) idealism and ideas. Economic Freedom Fighters have huge plans for the state. They envisage a massive programme of nationalisation, covering the mines, the banks and, of course, the land.

The party correctly identifies public procurement as a source of corruption and of service delivery failures. The EFF will “insource” all outsourced workers. It will employ an additional 80 000 workers within six months of being elected. It will fill all funded vacancies in government and abolish every conceivable type of tender. In addition to the existing State-Owned Enterprises, it will re-nationalise Iscor and Sasol and create all sorts of new state-owned enterprises, from banks to cement companies.

Underpinning these proposals is a critique of the ‘capitalist system’ and the way that is has insinuated itself into the work of government. Chinese Communists would blush. They have lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty in a few decades on the basis of a market economy.

How does the EFF intend to get government departments and state enterprises to work as they are intended? Having eliminated the market, everything comes down to corruption. The EFF will identify, pursue, prosecute, punish and re-educate public officials. It will establish administrative courts (a very interesting idea). It will cancel the pensions of corrupt officials. It will send them to jail for 20 years. It will guarantee the independence of the National Prosecuting Authority and so on.

In the end their proposals are very similar to those of the ANC and, especially, to the DA.

Corruption is not, however, the beginning and the end of South Africa’s challenges. What is needed are intelligent proposals to reform the state and political engagement about how to make them real. The Zondo commission is well placed to re-start the discussion.

Ivor Chipkin is the Director of GAPP, a think-tank on Government and Public Policy.

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