Significant pitfalls loom as organised business steps into the government morass
Organised business is taking a last-ditch gamble to work with a government in which decision-making is paralysed in myriad interministerial and crisis committees, working groups and workstreams, and the not publicly accountable Operation Vulindlela and NatJoints, which brings cops, spooks and soldiers into the centre of governance.
First things first. Organised business seems to have sidestepped complicity in governance messiness – and the spectre of complicity in failure – by not actually sending its CEOs to participate in workstreams on the polycrisis of energy, logistics and crime.
Regardless of the upbeat PR optics in the afterglow of the 6 June private huddle with President Cyril Ramaphosa, that job goes to some business pundits, who’ll get their mandates from the boardroom bosses and then report back.
The CEOs responsible for their respective workstreams will, however, attend the joint strategic oversight committee with the President to touch base on priorities, problems and progress.
That oversight committee is backed by a secretariat that brings together the directors-general of State Security, Mineral Resources, Public Enterprises, Transport and the Presidency, the SAPS national commissioner, organised business CEOs and a handful of others.
That’s the first take-out – caution over what is said and how it is said. PR does not equate to fact.
It’s the latest thing in government communications – fudge the lines for upbeat optics. A little like the Presidency statement on Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa getting his powers that, well, aren’t real powers (for instance, procurement was expressly excluded from his reach). Not that any of that has stopped the minister with expensive sartorial tastes from touring power stations and visiting various interested parties.
Exactly how the communications of this government-business cooperation are handled is contested terrain, with cautions for both sides. The ideological domestic debates that put organised business at the heart of destroying public infrastructure and the public good are dogma in many circles.
But fundamental is the take-out on the state of governance and the seeming inability of the South African government, from ministries and departments to entities, to do the work of governance without presidential direction.
That this cooperation between business and government has come after organised business met the President and some ministers in early June signals that little happens without the President’s say-so. Steeped in malicious compliance, it’s also the outcome of increasingly centralising powers in a Presidency that’s not subject to a parliamentary oversight committee.
Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa a step closer to a super Presidency after Ramaphosa’s master class in consolidating power
Take what’s now called the National Logistics Crisis Committee. It arose from earlier initiatives sans presidential directive between Transnet and the Minerals Council South Africa to reset freight rail logistics. Central was the revival of the freight rail network and third-party access so miners could get product to ports and off to sales destinations.
On 4 December 2022, the Minerals Council wrote to Transnet board chairperson Popo Molefe, calling for the dismissal of Transnet CEO Portia Derby and Transnet Freight Rail CEO Sizakele Mzimela.
‘Benefit of the doubt’
“For more than 24 months, we have given the benefit of the doubt to the Transnet management team, who have aptly demonstrated, through several bizarre decisions and statements and in particular the ongoing tragic decline in the performance of Transnet, that they cannot resolve the crisis and are not capable of turning around the performance. We are insisting on the critical need for urgent change,” News24 quoted from the letter.
It seems some collaborative structures were established; in a letter to Business Day on 18 January 2023, Mzimela asked, “Let’s give them time to deliver.”
But that track ran out in June – and a Presidency-approved business-government cooperative measure, the National Logistics Crisis Committee to also deal with port congestion and roads, has now been approved.
Meanwhile, organised agriculture, which was seemingly left in the veld, got on with the job. Citrus fruit from South Africa’s eastern regions is increasingly exported from Maputo, Mozambique.
The less said about the role of business in fighting crime and corruption, perhaps the better – although the support of organised business here dates back to the 1996 Business Against Crime South Africa initiative, and now there is the CEO-sponsored Joint Initiative to Fight Crime and Corruption.
In different, more hopeful and less abrasive times, SA Breweries boss turned SAPS CEO Meyer Kahn left frustrated in mid-1999 at the end of his two-year contract. The SAPS did away with the post. Today, much of the police is about “stamping the authority of the state” on society, according to the SAPS annual performance plan.
On the energy front, the National Energy Crisis Committee has been in place since Ramaphosa announced the National Energy Plan in July 2022. Centred on five priorities, it did not seem too much of an ask, particularly when weighed against the economic damage that persistent rolling blackouts inflicted on the economy and public trust.
But vested interests, ideological meandos and inertia hit as the creation of PR moments remained a mainstay in the electricity crisis. Most recently, the focus is on a series of megawatt additions that, like dominos, are vulnerable to collapse if just one falls.
Why not Nedlac?
It must be asked why the statutory National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), which brings together government, business, labour and community, is not the instrument of choice to forge consensus and cooperation.
Operation Vulindlela, formalised in Parliament in mid-October 2020 after months of discussions as the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan, does the heavy lifting on structural reforms.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Ramaphosa’s economic recovery plan: Mixed all-sorts, most of which we’ve seen before
Operation Vulindlela is a joint initiative between the National Treasury and the Presidency, whose officials do not publicly account to constitutional democratic oversight structures like Parliament or the provincial legislatures. And no, putting out a progress report at a media conference isn’t being publicly accountable, it’s just spin.
NatJoints, the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure of the police, state security and defence, is also not publicly accountable. Not established in law or regulation, it nevertheless is at the centre of government decision-making – and now government and business cooperation, particularly through its energy security priority committee.
Whose decision was it?
Given the role of NatJoints and Operation Vulindlela, and the myriad committees, councils and working groups, the record of government decision-making in South Africa’s constitutional democracy is fudged.
Was it a minister who took her/his decision through the Cabinet approval process, from committee to full Cabinet? Or was it a crisis committee, like energy or logistics, that actually took the decision, and then left it to the minister to steer through Cabinet? Or if Cabinet collectively decided on the back of a presentation from a crisis committee, Operation Vulindlela or NatJoints, who actually would be responsible? And who would a parliamentary committee call to hold accountable, as the Constitution requires?
Will a minister appearing before Parliament fudge it because, after all, it wasn’t their decision, but that of a crisis committee, NatJoints or some other entity? If a decision is taken from the minister, who then is reduced to a bureaucratic functionary to comply with administrative Cabinet processes, can the minister be held accountable? And if those who took the decisions are neither elected nor appointed, and the entity they work in is not established in law or regulation, how are those persons accountable to the public?
It is into this that business, perhaps frustrated by the failures of previous initiatives, now steps to cooperate with the government. Even if a firewall is maintained in who does what in such an arrangement, the pitfalls are not insignificant.
This corrosion of the record of government decision-making talks to the incapacity of the state, never mind the talk and spin on developmental state delivery. It leaves South Africa in the lurch on governance – and falls short of the country’s constitutional democracy built on the founding values of accountability, responsiveness and openness. DM