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17 December 2017 06:25 (South Africa)
South Africa

A politics of chaos: Vetocracy, the SA way

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • South Africa
stephen-vetocracy-subbedm.jpg

Trying to work out how power works and is exercised in a society should be one of the primary tasks of any scholar. Formalities, rules and laws are one thing, but how power is really exercised is usually quite another. It relies on the personalities that are involved, the formal and informal mechanisms that are created over time, and, often, the practices that exist for historical reasons. Relationships between different people also change, but have their roots in the past, which means that it can be possible to work out how power really flows. One of the most interesting ways of understanding this comes from Francis Fukuyama, the political scientist who famously once wrote of the ‘End of History’. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

I met Francis Fukuyama once. It was, unexpectedly, at the Mike’s Kitchen in Parktown, amid a garden of screaming children and early drinkers. It was an arranged meeting, for a brief interview, and you wouldn’t think from the way he just sat there, marking students’ papers, that he was one of the pre-eminent scholars of our time. In person he’s cordial: polite, friendly, and extremely well-prepped for the media.

Something many American academics do well is to convey complicated concepts via digestible sound bytes. Fukuyama is no exception. So when he wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs recently that focused to an extent on the concept of a “vetocracy”, I ensured I read to the end. All ten thousand words. [Eat your heart out, Brooks Spector – Ed].

The concept of a “vetocracy” is fascinating. Fukuyama is speaking primarily of an American situation, where so many different arms of government, from the president to Congress to the courts to local and federal authorities, are able to block certain programmes or proposals. His main thesis here is that this entirely interlocking system has made it almost impossible for the US to actually work. This is partly because it has become such a litigious society, and partly because its legendary founding fathers put so many checks and balances in place.

It is certainly an interesting way of looking at a society. If you can identify a society’s “veto-points” you can understand who really has the power.

It also means you have to examine how power is exercised, and what formal and informal mechanisms are used. Fukuyama points out that many democratic systems - and certainly that of the US of A - are based on the idea that elites, if left alone, will stack the deck to suit themselves. That is, of course, true. In fact, in the US, it is happening despite the checks and balances. Here in South Africa, we have a more intriguing situation. Our order of things has changed, without the mess and bloodshed of a revolution. Thus many of our elites are what you could call “old order elites”, people who benefited from the previous system. They still control much of the economy, part of the national discourse, and to an extent our national culture.

Then you have the “new order elites” who control the political sphere. You would think the politics controls everything else, but in fact the “old order elites” do have a significant veto over much of economic policy. Consider what would happen if the ANC-led government decided it was going to do away with inflation targeting. The chances of a run on the rand, as old order elites try to get their money out, would be fairly high. The country would be left poorer as a result. Which makes it difficult for the ANC to do.

The same holds true of social policies like affirmative action. It would be in the ANC’s best interests to try to have far more stringent policies on this than it does now. It doesn’t push too hard, however, because there would be an economic cost to the country in doing so.

Perhaps the biggest and most important veto-point in our democracy is the policy-making machinery of the ANC itself. Due to its highly consultative nature, making decisions takes a long time. And even then once the decision is taken, it can still be undone later. The National Development Plan was agreed virtually unanimously at Mangaung. It’s now being picked apart by most of the Left. Even the man who championed it, President Jacob Zuma himself, appears to be backtracking, as he neglects to notice that the plan is not in favour of much investment in nuclear power.

And then there’s the alliance. It was claimed for many years that it was COSATU and the SACP that were holding back changes to labour laws that the ANC wanted to implement. As a veto-point, the alliance appears to be losing its power, as Pravin Gordhan’s successful implementation of the Youth Wage Subsidy illustrates. It would have been unthinkable for it to be passed five years ago; it was smuggled through as a tax bill, but this still demonstrates how the alliance is less important than it was, because of the relative weaknesses of the SACP and COSATU. This is also demonstrated by e-tolls. COSATU is strongly opposed to them, and yet the ANC has gone ahead and implemented them. (In law, anyway.)

Formally, the main veto-point should be Parliament. It’s there that legislation is debated, and in the case of the US Congress, changed sometimes beyond all recognition. But in South Africa the ANC’s NEC holds more sway than Parliament. If the NEC wants to recall the president, out he goes. Not so for Parliament. That’s partly because of our proportional representation system, and partly because the ANC is still very much the dominant political player. While some parliamentary committees have made strong contributions to legislation, the ANC often uses its majority to force laws through. This would seem to indicate that here Parliament is actually quite a weak veto-point, if it is one at all. Certainly, it is subordinate to the NEC.

One of the main veto-points, if it can be called that, is the media, usually working with civil society. The reaction of the chattering classes to proposed legislation, or comments by a politician, can sometimes make or break an issue. The Traditional Courts Bill seemed to have the automatic support of many MPs, and would certainly have been forced through by the ANC’s whips. But the hue and cry raised by NGOs and then the media itself made it very difficult for that to happen. In the end it was dropped. The same has happened in many other cases.

At a practical level, one of the more difficult veto-points for government and the ANC to overcome is at the implementation level. Unlike societies such as China, with competent and official public servants, many policy issues can simply become a cropper when they’re supposed to be implemented. From incompetent managers at Rand Water, to possibly corrupt officials dealing with mining permits, we sometimes appear to simply lack the ability to actually get anything done.

And then, as always, there are the people. Sometimes, no matter what kind of policy has been passed, they just won’t comply. Of course, you already know what I’m talking about. E-tolls. The law was passed through Parliament (although it doesn’t seem that this went through the NEC in any formal way), and officials were told to implement it. Gantries were built, and the billing system is working (most of the time). And yet very few people are paying to use the roads. While the Gauteng ANC may be trying to prove that provincial branches of the party can be a veto-point all by themselves, the fact is it is really ordinary South Africans who have just refused to pay up. This would show that they themselves still have the ultimate veto point.

While we may be a very different society to the US, and our veto-points are certainly starkly different, the end result is the same. Sometimes, we can be a very difficult country to govern. DM

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • South Africa

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