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Is government supposed to be your partner or your nanny...

Business Maverick

2019 Elections - Business

Is government supposed to be your partner or your nanny? SA’s political parties opt for the latter

Ballot papers at the IEC centre in Port Elizabeth, South Africa where voting ballot papers were found by ANC members and former mayor Nceba Faku, 4 August 2016. (Photo by Gallo Images/The Herald/Eugene Coetzee)
By Tim Cohen
06 May 2019 0

In the 2019 election campaign, South Africa’s political parties have strained credulity, making promises they themselves know they cannot fulfil. What they lack is a philosophy of government that doesn’t see the state as a primary caregiver but as the guarantor of freedom and facilitator of commerce. Alexander Hamilton would have been disappointed.

It’s a quarter of a century since democracy and another election is upon us. As we enter the polling booths again, it’s hard to avoid the sense that South Africans have once more not answered the two crucial questions elections are meant to pose: What is government there for? And, what is a government not there for?

In some ways, this is understandable. SA’s democracy is still comparatively young. No country has really addressed these questions fully and finally. The answers differ over time and place. Yet, judging by the campaigns of the parties, it seems to me, none bothered to even pose either of these key questions head-on.

And so we are left with our usual stew of inchoate promises and a rag-bag of fuzzy good intentions. You glimpse in the mist a definite plan. Then it’s quickly followed by an emphatic denial of that previously definite plan.

The root premise of all three main political parties is the notion that government will be everything and do everything for all people at all times. There is nothing outside its capacity unless it has “capacity problems”. The root philosophy is of government as primary caregiver, as benefactor-in-chief.

The apotheosis of this tendency is the leader of the EFF, Julius Malema, whom my colleague Ferial Haffajee points out on these pages has repeatedly claimed during the election campaign that an EFF government would double the value of the 18 million grants paid every month. These cost the government R246-billion now, and it would jump to R492-billion.

That’s more or less half the budget of South Africa. So either the health and education budget would have to be halved in order to accommodate this expenditure, or SA would have to borrow not R500-million a day but around R750-million a day. In that case, the deficit would jump to 8% of GDP, and SA would get its debt junked faster than you can say “I’d like an IMF structural adjustment programme, please”.

The EFF is in the fortunate position of knowing it will never have to implement this promise, but the ANC, rather than roundly mocking this claim, offers it own undeliverable promises, mainly in the form of a practically instantaneous national health system. The National Health Insurance (NHI) system in which all South Africans should be covered will happen, it says, in 2025 six years from now. And the DA? As one tweeter commented wryly, the DA is really just the ANC with better accountants.

The political parties seem to have no clue of one seminal fact: the money bucket is empty. SA’s credit card is pretty much maxed out. SA has borrowed, to fund the promises it made last time, just on R2-trillion. By presenting the electorate with such an indiscriminate bag full of promises designed to hit emotional touchstones, they are effectively belittling their audience, straining our credulity and risk making the process of voting an act of habit or resignation rather than a choice.

And we, the electorate, are different now. We have seen what we have seen. We have seen the corruption and the endless promises of clean-ups which result in an endless court action with no accountability. These election campaigns really made me want to stand up and shout on behalf of the nation, “we are not that stupid!”

And this time, it’s especially grating. It’s more grating because I suspect the electorate is more energised this time. It feels like there is more at stake. The arguments are sharper and the questions more penetrating. Yet, reading the ANC manifesto is really an exercise in the willful suspension of disbelief. It’s long and rambling and talks about everything, everywhere. A colleague of mine berated me for even trying, saying “nobody believes that”. The cynicism was cutting, but it’s true.

The big difference between the 2019 political campaigns and those that preceded them is that this time the divisions within parties were almost as pertinent as the differences between them. The battle for the soul of the ANC will not be resolved by the election; the election will mark its beginning. It’s just on hold for a moment, while we get the irritating issue of the electorate out of the way. In the meantime, papering over the cracks within the ANC has become a full-time job.

Likewise the DA. The party has breached the outer boundaries of its growth within minority communities. But with that comes an intra-party debate about its soul, in a context in which the agenda is largely set by the ANC. Even the EFF managed to slip in an intra-party dispute, over, inevitably, money.

A few years ago, I had a rare treat. My wife and I went to see the play Hamilton, an American musical in New York. My clever wife had bought tickets long before the production, a hip-hop version of early American history, became insanely popular. I had never really thought about Alexander Hamilton’s contribution to the political debate of the time. But what a life. He was born out of wedlock on a small Caribbean island, fought in the American war of independence, became the country’s first finance minister, left the government after he became embroiled in a sex scandal and died in a duel with the then vice-president.

What a hot mess.

Hamilton was an immigrant who wanted to make good, and his philosophy lent in that direction. But his ideas in the nation’s founding arguments, the Federalist Papers, have become iconographic in the art of governance. He was not an economist in the modern sense, but his central argument, if I understand it correctly, was economic in a broader sense. In a nutshell, he thought the role of government was to set people free. Consequently, to prevent the federal government itself from becoming a threat to liberty, Hamilton worked with other nationalists to create the US constitution’s elaborate system of checks and balances, that has served it and other governments around the world so well.

Not many people know this, but the SA constitution contains many of Hamilton’s ideas since the SA constitution is drawn extensively from the West German post-war constitution, which was developed under the auspices of the then occupying US forces, who naturally favoured their own constitution. But Hamilton would have considered the South African notion of government as benefactor-in-chief without limit a terrible idea. Hamilton wanted the state, above all, to enhance social mobility, and to do that it should support and build commerce. It was commerce, not charity, that saved the US – as it could in SA.

The main function of government should not be to get more people on social grants but to get more people off social grants. South African political parties lack the insight into what a government designed to assist commerce would look like and what it could achieve. So they are thrown back on making undeliverable promises to an increasingly less gullible audience.

It’s time they shape up. DM

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