South Africa


The politics of South Africa’s patronage system (Part One)

New South African bank notes featuring an image of former South African President Nelson Mandela are displayed at an office in Johannesburg FIle Photo: Reuters

Part One of this series describes the mechanics and architecture of South Africa’s patronage system. It has become a major factor in the country’s contemporary crisis. Part two will offer a process for dismantling it.

South Africa is entering its second recession in as many years. Gross domestic product per person has returned to the levels of 2008. Unemployment, already at five times the global rate, is rising. So is the poverty rate, with more than half of South Africans living on less than R1,183 a month and a quarter living on less than R547. Twenty-five years after the end of apartheid, South Africa competes for the position of the most materially unequal society on the face of the earth.

Rather than coordinating a credible response to this malaise, the South African state is in crisis. It is widely perceived to be a part of the problem. Its politics is in fundamental ways corrupted. Its public administrations are in a condition of decay. Life-giving services of water, sanitation, and healthcare, economy-driving provision of electricity, transportation, and education, these are in many places collapsed or on the brink.

Over the past five years an unprecedented movement secured for the country a president who is widely considered to be alive to these challenges. That movement now feels itself to be enervated, on the back foot, even despairing as to the future. It is crucial, then, that it learns what it is confronting, that it develops a galvanising programme of strategy and tactics appropriate to doing so.

The new politics of patronage and reform

The central fact of contemporary South African politics is the emergence within it of a nationwide and mass-based patronage system. The early post-apartheid era, whatever its failures, was programmatic. It mobilised through ideological claims to the “common interest”. It developed plans that offered rationally credible solutions to pressing societal problems, that framed collective, rule-bound, and impersonal redistributions. That broad-minded momentum now lies shattered in disparate contestation over the spoils of public office.

In this development South Africa is not unique. Patronage was first amplified on a mass scale around the midpoint of the 19th century, in the great democratic cities of the north-eastern United States. Under its influence the Democratic and Republican parties reclined into corruption; public administrations stumbled through the challenges of industrialisation. Over the next 100 years, with the expansion of suffrage and other mechanisms of popular political competition, these systems proliferated across the Americas and in parts of Europe. In the latter half of the 20th century, with political decolonisation and socio-economic modernisation throughout the globe, they became a feature of most countries.

All through this history, people have expressed concerns about the associated political, administrative, and often socio-economic deterioration. In proportion to popular interest in the benefits of proficient government, politics has reoriented around an opposition between patronage and reform. The same is happening in South Africa. Many have just not fully realised it yet.

The politicisation of administrative office

The causal mechanics of this development are in outline not mysterious. They have been the subject of serious and sustained reflection for more than a century. Countries that have avoided or overcome episodes of mass-based patronage politics have established institutions that insulate public administrations from case-by-case political interference. They have achieved high levels of economic prosperity and equality. South Africa, a poor and unequal society, where the upward mobility of tens of millions is effectively blocked within the formal channels, gives to politicians free reign in administrative decision-making.

It does so – the precise instruments will be considered in detail in the second part of this series – by granting politicians extensive powers of appointment to and removal from administrative office. A legislative legacy of the need to assert post-apartheid democratic direction over the old apartheid administration, the result today is a state that is out of control.

It is not only that the elevation of political preferences in personnel practices downplays concern for administrative expertise. Nor is it just that officials selected for their professional characteristics tend to function more accurately in relation to administrative purposes, that they lack political networks which can be used to circumvent administrative lines of command.

More importantly, to protect against corruption, administrative procedures should be separated into stages in such a way that no single person or grouping can control outcomes across them. A basic principle of organisational design, in violation politicians are using their powers of appointment and removal to locate their allies across segregations of duties, thereby cross-cutting checks and balances. By such methods they facilitate the extraction of resources from administrative decision-making, directing favourable regulatory decisions, licences, contracts, and other benefits to companies owned by themselves or their personal and political connections.

State Capture” is little else, and it isn’t exceptional. Every sphere of government in South Africa, national, provincial, and local, exhibits a series of parallel organisations, distinct from but embedded in its public administration. Not entirely coterminous with the incumbent political party, these are informal entities that function by scanning administrative processes for potential points of private accumulation, then developing and putting into operation schemes for their exploitation.

In some cases, this is the end of things. The entity in question is then a “syndicate” that distributes its proceeds in small circles. Since, however, there is fierce competition for access to administrative resources, survival is generally predicated on the construction of a more expansive organisational form, what is called a “political machine”.

The architecture of patronage

Political machines, not unlike private firms, are a curious blend of authoritarian hierarchy and freewheeling market, fundamentally incompatible with democratic principles. Operating at cross-purposes with public institutions, their proliferation in South Africa is undoubtedly implicated in classical accompaniments of political, administrative, and socio-economic decrepitude.

By definition, machines join a certain kind of political leadership, through the distribution of patronage, to a grassroots support base. The leadership is either a single authoritative figure, in the parlance fittingly referred to as a “boss”, or a committee of such figures. In South Africa these can ordinarily, but not always, be found in the leading structures of the ANC, the national, provincial, and local executive committees. Bosses are often also leaders in government, the president or ministers, premiers or MECs, mayors or chairs of portfolio committees. Sometimes they prefer to remain in obscurity, opaque to democratic processes, acting at a distance on state power and not accountable to its prescripts.

Some provinces and many local governments have a “dominant” political machine. These centralise power and keep a tight rein on patronage distributions to the exclusion of competitors. More often two or more “factional” machines have hold of different parts of the administration, so that in South Africa competition between machines is endemic. Politics in parties is largely about the expansion of machines and the formation of coalitions of convenience between them. Jobs, contracts, houses, bags of hard currency, promises of advancement into higher structures with wider fields of opportunity, these and a range of other inducements must be augmented and dispersed to stitch together the numbers needed to take elections.

Machines bid each other up. They try to carve supporters off from each other. Inherently rife with illegality, they have no lawful mechanisms for enforcing agreements. So, beyond the generation and distribution of patronage, the cut and thrust of machine combat consists in marshalling own ranks and destabilising opponents. Leaks, investigations, and prosecutions, the disbandment of party structures and constitutional interventions into administrations, these work both to police defection and to disrupt the operations of enemies. Shows of force, the orchestration of protests and deadly riots, even assassinations, all are typical methods of machines and serve to build internal cohesion, disorganise opponents, and draw a line through threats.

The patronage system, thus composed, is large and dynamic. It is growing. Its methods of expansion are sophisticated and have taken on the dimensions of national policy. Indeed the “radicalisation” of parts of contemporary South African party politics is in substantial part a radicalisation within the parameters of machine politics.

Examples abound, but one clear illustration is former president Jacob Zuma’s Preferential Procurement Regulations of 2017, a centrepiece of his faction’s conception of radical economic transformation. These provide, for instance, that a minimum of 30% of certain contracts must be set aside as subcontracts to people “living in rural or underdeveloped areas or townships”. A direct appeal to the territorialised base of the patronage system, this instrument alone promises to release billions of additional rand into the grassroots patronage of most of South Africa’s 4,392 ward councillors and their bosses, who manage the lists of local suppliers, workers, and so on.

In response to the ingenuity of such enhancements of the power of the machines, reformers have been ingenuous. They have been unimaginative in the development of policies that can constrain and roll back the patronage system. DM

Ryan Brunette is a Research Associate at the Public Affairs Research Institute, at Wits and UCT. He is studying for a PhD in Political Science at the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York.


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