Business Maverick


After the Bell: Mr President, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results

After the Bell: Mr President, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results
Illustrative image | Source: President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his 2023 State Of The Nation Address at Parliament in Cape Town on 9 February 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Jeffrey Abrahams)

There may have been plenty of recognition that SA is in ‘a crisis’ in the President’s 2023 State of the Nation Address, but there was no acknowledgement of the causes of the crisis, or of the ANC’s participation in, or causation of, those crises.

As a thought exercise last week, I invited readers to notice what was not said in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address (Sona), rather than focusing on what was said. What did you think? Do let me know.

In the meantime, allow me to propose an answer to my own question. I think the big blank, the gigantic conceptual black hole is this: the stunning lack of mea culpa.

South Africa, I think we all acknowledge, is in a pretty poor state. It is not terminal, but it is pretty chronic. You can take whatever measure you would like, but the one I often trot out is the GDP lag: over the past 10 years, South Africa has underperformed the average GDP of the world, developed countries, developing countries, sub-Saharan Africa, southern Africa, East Asia (obviously), South East Asia, South America, the BRICS group (obviously) — and its own expectations. Just to name a few. That is quite a list.

That underperformance is affecting everything: government infrastructure, the government deficit, the level of government debt, unemployment, houses without electricity, hospitals without water — whatever matters. Just name it.

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You have to say, Ramaphosa really gave it a good thump in his speech on Thursday, 9 February. Outside of the EFF’s shenanigans, the speech itself took a good two-and-a-quarter hours. Few subjects were left unaddressed. Boxes were ticked. Clearly, all ministers were consulted and had the opportunity to make a pitch for their pet projects.

And neither was the speech entirely without apologies for South Africa’s dire state — though much of it was by implication rather than by expression. For example, he did say: “Too many of our municipalities, 163 out of 257, are dysfunctional or in distress.”

He addressed the issue by saying: “Integrity assessments will become a mandatory requirement for recruitment to the public service and entry exams will be introduced.” Hmmm.

But what I was looking for was something different: a recognition that the actor behind South Africa’s failure was ANC policy itself, because without that recognition, can we really be confident that policy is going to change?

Numb recognition

There was plenty of recognition that SA is in a “crisis”, but no acknowledgement of the causes of the crisis, and the ANC’s own participation in, or causation of, those crises.

We got instead a kind of numb recognition that things aren’t going right. But the response, outside of the electricity crisis, was more often than not, a doubling down on existing plans to fix the problem.

Fundamentally, the ANC does not believe that the mess the country is in any way a consequence of its own policies, so it sees reason to adapt, but no reason to change fundamentally its approach to governance.

Take, for example, the passage on the social compact. Here, you might think, would be a good opportunity to self-flagellate because Ramaphosa did specifically promise last year at this time to create a social compact within 100 days. And that didn’t happen, as we know. But why did it not happen?

Well, according to Ramaphosa: “We were not able to conclude a social compact in the timeframe we had envisaged because a number of new circumstances emerged that made it difficult for social partners to forge a consensus.”

Mealy-mouthed excuses

Now that is just mealy-mouthed. Let me translate and tell you what happened. First, labour was angry because it seemed to them that the government was focusing all its time and effort on business and little on them.

Business had a different problem: the government wanted very exact, numerically specific undertakings on investment, BBBEE and localisation, as well as a whole range of other issues.

Business argued the level of undertakings the government was putting on the table was just absurd. And, anyway, it’s very difficult for business to give specific numerical undertakings because there is this weird thing called the business cycle, which is not exactly predictable, as we are seeing at this very moment.

The whole idea of numerical targets fits into Trade, Industry and Competition Minister Ebrahim Patel’s vision of business as an inanimate chess piece that the government can and should move around the board as it desires.

Labour, oddly enough, has the same issue.

And business and labour both wanted to know what the government would bring to the party. What they got instead was an undertaking to reform and better governance (see absurd, above).

‘Just do your job’

The response of both labour and business was, well, “That’s your job, isn’t it? That’s not a concession, that’s what you are supposed to do.”

So, to characterise the failure to develop the social compact as, first, the consequence of the very vague “new circumstances”, and second, to attribute the failure to the social partners and not yourself, is entirely oblivious of the government’s own failings and misreading of what is possible.

Physicist Albert Einstein’s most famous misattributed quote is that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I like a similar quote attributed to American educator and counsellor Jessie Potter opening a women’s conference, who said: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.”

Why has that not penetrated the ANC’s mindset and policy-making machine? BM/DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Annemarie Janse van Rensburg says:

    I see how my grown-up children struggle to get their work done! They have to get up at 4:00 just in order to get some work done, then when they are busy – loadshedding for 4 hours! Frustration and bosses who aren’t happy! So it is going to cost them thousands of rands just to install measures to be able to get their work done! In the meantime Soweto and Thembisa hardly get any loadshedding because the ANC hopes that they will vote for them!
    Another thing – people who are on oxygen 24/7 are battling. The small O2 machines only keep going for 2 hours – the other two hours they have to struggle
    You can’t keep meat cold, so there is a risk of food poisoning! Everything is going down the drain! Our resilience as well!

  • Peter Smith says:

    We need to start fixing at the local level before the municipalities collapse. I had a look at the IDP’s (Integrated Development Plans) of the city of Cape Town and Tshwane. These are 5 year plans. There is no SWOT analysis. They just made small adjustments to the previous plans. The budgeted income does not materialise. Then they cut maintenance and capital expenditure which are required to deliver services. So most of the money ends up for paying salaries. It seems that rate paying residents has no rights. Service delivery falls under the Consumer Protection Act. Who is prepared to step up and assist residents to do a class action before it is too late?

    • Steve Davidson says:

      I’m going to thank you for one thing before I climb in. Thanks to your comment I finally decided to bite the bullet and donate to the DM (rather than just buying the DM168 weekly as my ‘contribution’) so that I could respond to you.

      My main and simple question to you is: why on earth did you choose the two main municipalities in the country (very well in the case of Cape Town) run by the DA, to criticise? Further, is it just because they are probably the only two that actually do any planning whatsoever that you could get some data for? Do you live in the real world – and particularly, have you been elsewhere in this country and seen what a mess it is? Are you another ANC plant (in more ways than one) like the morose (and moronic) Brett Herron who tries continuously to undermine the DA’s excellent work in keeping this place going, to say nothing of the Western Cape as a whole, and tries to say that the white areas get more done for them than Khayelistha?! Get real man, and realise that we should be eternally grateful for what the DA has done and continues for us. And if you talk about SWOT analyses, maybe ask yourself what YOU’D do in their situation, with thousands of SASSA claimants/economic refugees still apparently streaming in from the Eastern Cape! How the heck can you plan for that?!

  • Derek Jones says:

    Nicely put Tim. Admission of guilt is an important moral step to take when you are in the wrong. The courts, the judicious ones reward it. Those wronged and society in general also respect it if genuine. Unfortunately for Ramaphoser and the ANC that didn’t happen. They are taking the SA public for fools. A fatal mistake.

    • Bruce Q says:

      Alas I fear the majority of South Africa’s voting public are just that.
      And our present disastrous energy situation will probably be attributed to the poor sod who has been trying desperately to fix it for the past, very few years… Certainly not the ANC.

  • Richard Cowling says:

    Tim, as usual, has his finger on the pulse. The ANC government is enshrouded in strategies attributed to the brain’s left hemisphere: a focus on quantitative, disembodied targets that ignore the context of a richer, more complex world of human endeavor. The extraordinary polymath, Iain McGilchrist, would adjudge ANC governance as one of the worst examples of the postmodern era, leading us to a tyranny where where kleptocrats and and their lackey bureaucrats try to fool us – the serfs – with managerial modernism based on hollow targets, empty numbers and nauseating platitudes. Who is this Mr Patel who seemingly hides in his ideological cave, planning a better life for us all. These people are dangerous!

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