Let a thousand citizen blossoms bloom – kickstarting and policing the SA economy

Public servants and officials are the heart of the black middle class and, outside the large metros, provincial government employees, councillors and local government officials are the black middle class, full stop. Reducing their number or the public service wage means, effectively, declaring war on the black middle class. It simply won’t happen.

by Ivor Chipkin

President Cyril Ramaphosa is due to release his new economic plan for South Africa. There have been several others in circulation recently, including from organised business, the ANC, the National Treasury, the Presidency and from some provincial governments. They tend to agree on what needs to be done, so it will not be too difficult to find a synthesis between them.

The new plan is likely to be stillborn if several other fundamental issues are not addressed. Most plans look to the reduction of the public service or, at least, the public service wage bill to bring down or contain government spending. It is pie in the sky to believe that this can be achieved.

The black middle class has fewer and fewer Diamonds and more and more Grey Suits. That is, public servants and officials are today the heart of the black middle class and, outside the large metros, provincial government employees, councillors and local government officials are the black middle class, full stop. Reducing the number of public servants or public service wage means, effectively, declaring war on the black middle class. It simply won’t happen.

Most plans also look to a renewed unity of purpose within government and between social and economic partners. There are many exhortations for the president to show courage or to be decisive, as if the current torpor is a question of character.

This is how we largely discuss the question of corruption, as a matter of integrity, pitting those with it against those without it. If only. There is a wild fantasy that the corrupt are found on only one side of the ANC’s factionalism and that a renewed Hawks and NPA will arrest and imprison the trouble-makers — resolving the tensions in the party. It simply won’t happen.

This is why most respectable economists in South Africa are sceptical that any government plan will yield growth, especially the kind that is developmental. One of the more important studies in this regard predicts that South Africa has entered a phase of rapid decline and ongoing fiscal distress.

In this bleak environment, the opportunity for renewal might be in a place which looks especially desolate — the public service and the state-owned enterprises.

If it is unrealistic to reduce the wages or number of civil servants, it is not unrealistic to get better value from them. Any and all economic plans require government administrations to do certain things, whether it is to expedite digital migration, or maintain key infrastructure. Most plans look to key state-owned enterprises to discharge their mandates: supply electricity predictably and transport key economic goods reliably.

Hence, the most important condition of growth in South Africa today is getting the civil service working better. What needs to happen?

  1. Politicians need to do less, not more. Their role is to decide on what needs to be done, not how. Civil society, newspapers, community forums can shine a light on the activities of politicians to keep them in their lane;
  2. The function of a civil service is to determine how plans should get implemented. The same is true of the managements of state-owned enterprises. That is the measure of their capacity. Sometimes this requires innovative and highly qualified individuals. A lot of the time it requires people who can follow rules. Politicians, generally, are especially bad in this area, which is why politicised administrations are a route to dysfunction;
  3.  In South Africa, the ANC continued and exacerbated an old National Party habit of politicising government departments and agencies. Many departments and agencies are dysfunctional, though some are not;
  4.  Many administrations will fail to implement the plans given to them. Some will, however. There will be great geographic unevenness. It might spur competition between administrations; and
  5. The performance of the hundreds of administrations will depend on three variables: the degree to which they are able to insulate themselves from inappropriate political interference, the degree to which they have capable staff and the degree to which they are able to manage procurement. Today, the simple fact is that procuring goods and services is largely what government departments do.

We cannot wait for the president or the ruling party to lead a process of government renewal. They have no appetite for it, nor can they do it. At best, we can hope that the president and his ministers lead by example and show appropriate restraint.

We need citizen initiatives to monitor the work of government departments and agencies, to demand transparency in tendering processes, to review appointment processes, to audit government projects and to monitor government finances. Let donor agencies finance local community development forums, newspapers, radio stations – all focusing on governance and administration.

Let a thousand civil society initiatives blossom.

This article was published in the Daily Maverick here

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