Analysis

How to destroy a country: Government Edition

By Marianne Merten 13 December 2019
Caption
A mother walks her children to school in the morning past one of the many brightly colored shacks in the Alexandra Township, Johannesburg, South Africa, 03 October 2013 (reissued 07 February 2018). EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK

It would be easy to blame Eskom - its R440-billion debt has government by the short and curlies - but that would be an unhelpful shortcut. At the centre of South Africa’s slow slide into obliteration is a toxic vortex of politics, politicking and persistent governance failures.

Statecraft 101: “art of winning elections and achieving some necessary degree of governing competence in office”. James Bulpitt, British academic (22 May 1937 – 5 April 1999).

Every nation gets the government it deserves.” Joseph de Maistre, French diplomat, writer, lawyer and philosopher (1 April 1753 – 26 February 1821).

In late November 2017 when then public enterprise minister Lynne Brown testified under oath before the public enterprise inquiry into Eskom State Capture, she delivered also an account of governance processes.

A submission would be received by her office, summarised and passed up the chain of bureaucrats before being signed off by the director-general, who would finally put it on the minister’s desk. That all could take up to three weeks, and maybe even longer depending on the availability of officials whose sign-off is required.

Effectively, the minister never gets to see anything original, just information filtered through the lens of officialdom and its interests.

Brown is now gone, but there is nothing to indicate this way of doing things was an isolated case – or that anything has changed since the so-called Thuma Mina new dawn.

Many of those who walked into ministries and department following the May 2019 elections couldn’t access institutional best practice, institutional efficiencies and institutional memory. And doing something about it has come up against passive-aggressive senior civil servants who still run rings around their political bosses in, let’s call it if you will, a dance of death by paperwork.

A most recent example of that would be the request for information regarding independent power producers (IPPs) issued by Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe. This relates to Section 34 determinations, where municipalities directly get electricity from IPPs rather than going through Eskom.

But as IPPs are official government policy under the Integrated Resource Plan – over 20 IPPs are underway under Bid Window 4, with the next window to open in early 2020 – it really wasn’t necessary to issue such a request for information. And it’s even more unnecessary as the government has a highly regarded IPP office.

It’s understood that with Eskom load shedding all the way up to Stage 6, Mantashe has been under pressure. The IPPs could have closed the gap of the missing 5,000-megawatt the power utility now says it needs urgently.

But IPPs are contested by trade unions operating at Eskom as unions love coal, as does the South African Communist Party (SACP). Opening the recent 4th Special Congress SACP national chairperson Senzeni Zokwana, a former minister, said “do not to ignore coal. Let’s look at cleaner ways of burning coal”. The congress declaration on Thursday said: “Eskom, in a turned around form, must serve as the mainstay of reliable, cleaner, renewable and affordable energy production”.

Eskom burns coal. The SACP and Cosatu trade unions are ANC alliance partners. And the governing ANC has ensured the struggling power utility gets R59-billion in bailouts until 2021, with R23-billion annually after that for another seven years. And this is just one twist in the toxic mix of politics and politicking.

Statecraft at its best is skilfully managing governance. It’s about implementing qualitative, responsive and timeous solutions to citizens’ needs in compliance with laws and regulations – and service delivery that meets the same standard on time, every time, regardless of who’s the recipient.

Statecraft at its worst is just doing what must be done to stay at, what within the governing ANC alliance is called – the levers of state power. And to do so elections must be won to at least retain, or even increase, that access to the levers of state power. Hence the focus on event-driven governance, be that launches, statements, the odd gala dinner and the usual pamphleteering, cutting of ribbons and kissing of babies.

For the governing ANC, unrelentingly non-stop electioneering and campaigning – be that party political or for the democratic system – has become the way of life.

Intersecting country elections, whether national and provincial or municipal, are the five-yearly ANC elective national conference, the mid-term assessment at the National General Council (NGC), the five-yearly policy conferences, and nine provincial elective conferences preceded by regional votes speckled throughout.

National and provincial elections are followed within 24 to 30 months by a local government poll, while the ANC elective national conference falls about 18 months before the national general elections, creating the situation of two centres of power that the ANC simply doesn’t like.

While the 2012 Mangaung ANC conference resolution didn’t shut the door to looking into a single election for the country, it became clear the governing party regarded election campaigns intrinsic to boosting its operations:

Election campaigns give the ANC an opportunity to connect with the masses and renew our mandates – so we shouldn’t reduce them,” read that resolution, adding: “Without separate local government elections, which open spaces in the state, it will cost the ANC more financially to reach our constituencies”.

As elections are an opportunity to gain more power and control, the disruptiveness of the almost permanent state of campaigning appears to be deemed a lesser evil amid the factional politicking.

On the odd occasion such ANC factional politicking, politics and electioneering work out for the country.

Fresh from Ramaphosa’s December 2017 Nasrec ANC national conference win, the factions squared off ahead of the State of the Nation Address in a superheated political two weeks or so. Amid a series of extraordinary ANC National Executive Committee meetings, in early February 2018 Parliament took the unprecedented decision to postpone the annual event – for “a more conducive political environment”, said then-Speaker Baleka Mbete.

The political drama did not end there as the ANC parliamentary caucus was getting ready to bring its own motion of no confidence in Zuma – he had weathered eight opposition ones over the years – if the then president did not resign as had been decided by the ANC NEC.

In the end, Zuma resigned in a late-night address to the nation in the final hours of Valentines Day, it was Ramaphosa, was elected president in the National Assembly on 15 February 2018, who delivered SONA five days later.

It felt like a new leaf was being turned over.

At the time the pressure of the State Capture years on the public purse was becoming more and more clear. The 2018 Budget showed interest payments were the quickest rising expenditure item of government, as the economy stalled, and joblessness remained stubbornly high. This dire economic outlook has been confirmed for 2019 when unemployment rose to 38.5% on the expanded definition that includes those who’ve given up finding work while economic growth was revised down to 0.5%.

Daily Maverick in March 2019 wrote how the price tag of State Capture in the over the past five years reached around R1.5-trillion, or a third of South Africa’s gross domestic product.

Ramaphosa in February 2018 took over a government not only steeped in State Capture, with all that entails, but also an administration familiar with mollycoddling the politically connected and the bosses.

It was an administration that failed to comply with its own laws and regulations, as far back as 2012, on its own record.

In September 2013 then Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane launched the Management Performance Assessment Tool (MPAT), was officially described as an “early warning system” so management weaknesses are spotted and fixed in good time. The report showed the overwhelming majority of the over 100 departments measured flouted legislative compliance, 80% had failed to implement service delivery improvements and 64% had no fraud prevention measures in place.

It was damning. And the following year, the outcomes weren’t any better. After Chabane was killed in a car accident in March 2015, his successor at performance monitoring and evaluation in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe, quietly ditched MPAT.

But the governance failures of government at all levels continue to emerge in the consolidated audit outcome reports by the auditor-general – year after year.

Ramaphosa set out what he could do, what’s within his prerogative as president of South Africa, where the ANC factions could not challenge him.

And so the Zondo commission of inquiry finally started. New bosses for the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the elite Hawks police unit were appointed as independent panels convened on land reform not limited to expropriation without compensation and the troubled State Security Agency (SSA), where the panel’s wide-ranging recommendations were accepted, and passed down to the state security minister to implement.

Soon Ramaphosa hit his boundaries. As the push forward stalled, the spin was that he’s just finishing up the Zuma second term years, was stuck with Zuma-appointed ministers and policies, but that all would change after the May 2019 elections.

In the Zuma administration, marked by at least 12 reshuffles over nine years, ministers and deputy ministers soon learnt to keep their heads below the parapet. Not causing ructions was the best way to keep a job that paid over R2-million a year, plus perks like cars, bodyguards and VIP treatment.

In this context, senior public servants soon learnt they could run the show, and distract politicians with the threat of drowning them in paperwork. Or generating the paperwork that showed the boxes are being ticked. If 5,000 solar geysers needed to be installed in line with a photo opp launch event, then that’s what needed to be done come hell or high water – whether the solar geysers actually worked was immaterial.

Institutional ‘culture’ is difficult to change.

Even after the May 2019 elections, Ramaphosa appeared to be hemmed in by ANC factional considerations, and his revisioning of government size and structure has not moved beyond the merging a couple of ministries after the May 2019 elections.

And so the president kept moving sideways, getting himself to chair more and more councils, advisory working committees and such. A rough count shows Ramaphosa not only chairs the Presidential Coordinating Council, but also the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Council alongside the Economic Advisory Council, the Presidential Working Group on Jobs, the Inter-ministerial Committee on Investment, the Presidential Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) Commission, the Presidential Climate Change Commission. There may be more. There’s also the Cabinet itself.

Whether this is a reaction to having been frustrated in the resizing and reshaping of government, or Ramaphosa’s move towards a super-presidency must emerge more clearly. But a super-presidency would be in line with the ANC 2017 Nasrec national conference resolution:

The Presidency is the strategic centre of governance. The strategic centre must be the central driver of the developmental state and the following core resource-based administrative functions must form part of the centre of government to support the strategic centre: state macro-policy and planning; budget and resource allocation and prioritisation; co-operative governance; public services; and performance management.”

It would be one way to overcome frustrations over governance, at least at the national level, although the temptation is to ask why not then shed Cabinet ministers altogether and rather appoint technocrats.

Right now Ramaphosa relies on an inner circle of trusted ministers he was able to appoint after the May elections – and Finance Minister Tito Mboweni who since October 2018 has been the battle axe in Cabinet, raising all those prickly issues.

That includes SAA having to get a strategic equity partner – the national airliner is now in business rescue – ending government bailouts for State-owned Entities (SOEs) generally and an urgent call to arms to reverse the economic decline that has pegged growth at 0.5% in 2019. Or as Mboweni said in the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) on 30 October 2019:

The consequences of not acting now would be gravely negative for South Africa. Over time the country would likely face mounting debt service costs and higher interest rates and may enter a debt trap. The unemployment crisis would worsen, and government debt could balloon. This is an outcome we are determined to avoid.”

Whether action will be possible remains to be seen. Much will depend on ANC factionalism, and the shakeout from the 2020 ANC General National Council (NGC).

Ramaphosa wants to take the ANC along with him on a path of renewal that was agreed to at the 2017 Nasrec conference. Part of that is nostalgia, but part of it is also that it would simply be too ghastly to be the leader on whose watch there is a rupture into, let’s call it old school ANC and the radical economic transformation grouping, that would fundamentally change the character of Africa’s oldest liberation movement.

But to do so, Ramaphosa must straddle various factional interests, and also push backs, in a never-ending power play within the governing party as networks seek to clinch, maintain or expand power in the almost permanent election cycles.

And that means the ANC’s interest consistently trumps South Africa’s. What remains to be seen is how long the patience of South Africans will last to indulge these failures of governance in the public interest. DM

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