Defend Truth


Part 1: Join the other dots… and let’s all work together to get it right this time

Part 1: Join the other dots… and let’s all work together to get it right this time
From left: Gauteng Police Commissioner Elias Mawela in Riverlea, Johannesburg, after the bodies of five suspected illegal miners were found in the area and more than 100 people were arrested in connection with illegal mining activities, on 4 August 2023. Johannesburg. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi) | Litter on the corner of Johannes Ramokhoase Street and Esíkia Mphahlele Drive in Pretoria amid a strike by the South African Municipal Workers Union on 10 September 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Lee Warren) | Thousands of South Africans and foreign immigrants protest against attacks on the immigrant community in Johannesburg on 24 May 2008. (Photo: John Moore. /Getty Images) | Roads in Mogale City, Gauteng, were blocked by burning tyres and rocks during protests against illegal mining on 4 August 2022 in Mogale City, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi)

In 2017, Pravin Gordhan ‘joined the dots’ between corruption and the Zuma administration. Today John Matisonn takes the next step, beginning an eight-part series that joins the dots between specific government policies and the rise of zama zamas, construction mafias, extremist groups, vigilantism, xenophobia and the collapse of municipal and other services. But this series’ ultimate focus is on the good news: how switched-on ministers can reverse course to create a bright – even a very bright – future.

As things stand in September 2023, the 2024 elections are likely to produce a coalition government. But the state of the parties and the experience of municipal coalitions raise doubts – will a 2024 coalition government fix anything?

Recovery from a crisis as severe as South Africa’s depends on a new vision that is ready and clear to leaders and the public by Election Day 2024 – and a discernible path to implementation.

The government is floundering. Public order breaks down too often, and public order policing seems haphazard. Too many schools malfunction, despite substantial investment in education.

Our soldiers risk their lives, but the Air Force does not have planes to evacuate them, while tens of billions of rands’ worth of jet fighter aircraft lie unused. The government’s own reports show a lack of the necessary alignment between our foreign policy and what we require our military to do.

Budget allocations sometimes show a shift in priorities to pampered elites of the ‘blue light’ culture. Are leaders more important than workers or would-be workers?

Municipalities are in such trouble that a clean audit is treated as a sign of excellence, when all it means is that the books balanced. Business takes over services from non-performing government departments.

No comment is required on the state of electricity, or the state of the rail network. If you’re reading this, you already know.

As for the economy, the country has been de-industrialising for decades. Yet without industrialisation, full employment is absolutely impossible. Mining output volume has also fallen for decades. The decline of South African construction firms partly explains the rise of the construction mafia, and the decline in mining jobs makes the rise of zama zamas predictable. Economic mismanagement combined with ineffective policing is the recipe for the scenes we see now.

New black smallholder farmers do valiant work, but lack the government support to become the force for food security that they could be. Meanwhile, not only commercial farmers but also traditional leaders have benefited even when they do not put good farmland to use.

Budget allocations sometimes show a shift in priorities to pampered elites of the “blue light” culture. Are leaders more important than workers or would-be workers?

Scarce public resources must be safeguarded to serve all South Africa’s people, especially those in need. This ethos was lost in the decades after liberation.

There are plenty of places where we can learn the right lessons, from both successes and failures. Ethiopia and Rwanda achieved phenomenal growth in this century. Kenya is building a technology future. In the same period, South Africa fell from the biggest economy on the continent to third place, behind Nigeria and Egypt. Job losses rise frighteningly each year.

Do we try to understand why Japan and China did so well? Or why China outstripped Russia after the Cold War ended? In Africa, Asia or elsewhere, the lessons are there.

Civil servants in urban areas do remarkably well regardless of the effectiveness of their institutions. South Africa is not the first post-liberation African country to experience this tendency. This has been a common phenomenon of post-liberation countries – urban elites do well from government work without extending services.

What can we learn from their experience?

A new vision starts with a clear understanding of a limited list of priorities and values. It includes clear short- and medium-term plans for departments that might fall into fresh hands. What must we do first, to build confidence that success is possible, and that a new government knows how to turn things around? How departments sequence reforms is critical to building momentum and avoiding institutional sabotage.

We live in an age when it has never been easier to establish what works and what fails. We are blessed with access to Chinese, Indian, Western and South African expertise to create jobs, but who in the government has the curiosity?

What have the multiple parliamentary work visits abroad brought back besides tabloid tales of luxury shopping?

Where to start

A smaller Cabinet structure must remove the overlapping roles that have plagued recent cabinets. Deputy ministers should only be appointed where clear roles justify the position. We must end the “blue light culture”, including foreign-made luxury cars, long and noisy convoys, excessive travel retinues, assistants and security guards.

Joint Cabinet responsibility must be enforced by a small, competent Cabinet. Ministers need to speak frankly in Cabinet when policy is being debated, but once a Cabinet decision is taken, ministers must either provide full-throated support or resign. This commitment – to joint Cabinet responsibility or resignation – must be explicit and agreed to by every minister.

Expert cross-examination of the executive is rare. Parliamentarians need to elevate the parliamentary committee debate on policies and their implementation.

“Made in South Africa” must be prioritised and championed on a continuous basis by ministers just as “Made in China 2025”, “Made in India” and Joe Biden’s Made in America are in those countries. This shows respect for South African blue collar workers who make the products that give South Africans pride and prosperity.

That doesn’t mean another communications campaign, extravagant sponsorships or hired “influencers” – it means issuing regulations requiring every government entity, where practical, to buy South African-made cars, every infrastructure project to use South African construction firms. If you don’t do that, you don’t have a Made in South Africa policy.

Our form of Cabinet government is not working well enough. How ministers spend their time provides some insight. First, they are so frequently shuffled between ministries that even if in rare cases they have specialist skills, they are likely not long enough in the relevant ministry.

Second, their weeks are so busy with non-ministry work that time to get on top of difficult portfolios – all portfolios in South Africa are now difficult – is too limited.

I’ve known ministers who spend Mondays at Luthuli House in ANC meetings, in Johannesburg. Next there are essential meetings and approvals in the minister’s office in Tshwane.

Then it’s off to Parliament in Cape Town, where they must show their faces, and attend National Assembly sessions, the ANC caucus meeting at which politics and party positions are discussed, then the Cabinet meeting at which other ministries’ issues are discussed, then some committee meetings of the Assembly and the NCOP, and occasional NCOP meetings where they may speak.

They are expected to know the subject they are speaking on, and to be familiar with legislation before the House. The right policy expert advisers could keep them up to speed, but too many are political, not specialist, choices.

Later in the week, they may return to Tshwane, or go to a home town to meet party constituencies and see their families. Weekends are often taken up by ANC meetings, especially if they are members of the NEC, the NWC or other committees. Add a number of public meetings or appearances with the President, the deputy president, either alone or with ambassadors and visiting dignitaries. 

Since it is a given that you are not a portfolio expert, when do you develop the judgement or detailed knowledge to make the innovative, life-changing decisions you must make?

We need ministers to break out of their silos, replace protocol with problem-solving across departments – an ‘all-of-government’ approach.

Compare this with two US cabinet members who recently visited: Secretary of State Antony Blinken has worked full-time on foreign policy for 39 years, rising to deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state before getting the top job; and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, an economist who has held government jobs since 1994, including chairperson of the Federal Reserve Bank and chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. 

Neither has many distractions from policy. Our system is different, it is true. This is not to focus on specific South African ministers, but surely these critical times require a government of the best talents?

A second problem for our Cabinet is an obsession with “protocol” that makes it verboten for cross-department meetings to resolve issues. On the SABC board, I regularly asked for a meeting with the finance minister, Treasury director-general or other suitable Treasury official to correct public misconceptions or resolve important issues, only to be told to go through the communications minister. We had five such ministers, so I’m telling no secrets when I say not all ministers cooperate in facilitating those meetings.

We need ministers to break out of their silos, replace protocol with problem-solving across departments – an “all-of-government” approach.

Finally, ministers sign performance contracts. They began under President Jacob Zuma, but did nothing to stop State Capture. The flaw in the performance contracts is that they measure inputs, not outputs – credited for performing tasks like producing documents, not for how many jobs they created.

We need performance indicators determined by impact. Why do Chinese Communist Party mayors produce such growth and new job creation? Because in the CCP, the mayor of a city is judged by the growth rate in that city and the amount of new private, public, domestic and foreign investment she/he attracts.

The Chinese reward impact, not boxes ticked. If your town grows and jobs are created, you stay on or get promoted. If not, further rise is unlikely and you may not keep your job. That’s a kind of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” conservative economist Milton Friedman could get behind. How about South Africa?

If one or more ministries fall to a coalition party, how could that minister make a real difference?

The world’s greatest economic miracle worker, who brought hundreds of millions out of poverty, China’s Deng Xiaoping, called reform “China’s second revolution”. Reform is vital, but any new minister will have to be extraordinarily careful about sequencing reforms. Some things need to be done on day one, others require a measured introduction.

Over time changes will be required at every level of government. But changes can only be made in phases. How a new government sequences the introduction of each step is critical to managing the politics of radical reform.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The 1994 unwritten social compact: Why the ANC made mistakes early on and still struggles to correct its course

Incoming Cabinet ministers will need to be ready with hard decisions about rogue agencies that need to be closed immediately if they risk sabotaging the reform programme. This should be part of a coalition agreement. Top officials in failing departments will have to be replaced.

If enough ministers took expert advice and solved problems fast, they could put South Africa on track to become a powerful engine of growth first at home, then for the region and after that for the entire continent of Africa.

Can be done

The good news is the answers are there if we have the courage to do the hard work so South Africa’s unfulfilled promise as the growth engine of the continent is met.

Two or three targeted constitutional changes will be needed to correct the dysfunction that has enabled many of South Africa’s 490 parliamentarians to stay in office despite failing to provide the accountability to voters that is their core task.

We need a constant culture of error correction based on a realistic appreciation of the capacity of the state and the capacity of the economy.

Former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke and others have identified two flaws in our otherwise remarkable Constitution: excessive presidential power and the failure of our elected representatives to be accountable to their voters when government functions fail.

A reformed electoral system to make elected legislators accountable should follow the principles of the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission to ensure representatives are elected and removed by their own constituents based on their performance, without removing the proportionality principle. The minimum threshold for a party’s entry to legislative bodies should be raised. 

Not only must the Cabinet be small and efficient, but active accountability must go all the way to the President. We need a constant culture of error correction based on a realistic appreciation of the capacity of the state and the capacity of the economy.

Accountability at all levels must be accountability for outcomes – not just adherence to governance rules, unqualified audits or meeting spending targets. Ministers and the President must know enough about their reforms to demonstrate their tangible benefits.

Phrases that have become unenforced rhetoric can remain unenforced no longer. “Prosecute to the full extent of the law” must mean culprits are arrested, prosecuted, tried and sentenced if convicted. A clear rise in the proportion of crimes successfully prosecuted, found guilty and appropriately sentenced is the output for which security ministers and officials must be held accountable.

The solution that has been avoided – appointing private-sector senior advocates and attorneys for complex prosecutions – must be implemented right away, while mentoring less-experienced prosecutors to handle future trials.

Education results must be judged by independent, international and African rankings, not matric pass rates which reflect the proportion of passes among those allowed to write final exams and subject to misleading conclusions.

Progress in tackling the “triple threat of poverty, inequality and unemployment” must be measured in jobs gained or lost and services provided, with ministers removed only for failure to achieve results or dishonesty.

This series provides my recommendations for first steps to get major government departments on track. The good news is that what some businesspeople have said – that South Africa is capable of a spectacular recovery – is true.  

The potential rewards are profound – far greater success than even our best years of the past.

Corruption is not the cause of South Africa’s malaise; it’s the effect. It’s the consequence of mistakes. But whatever we are doing, it’s reached its sell-by date. It reached it some time ago. The only question is: how long will it take for us to accept the lessons that are there to be seen?

I’m keeping the good news for last, because South Africa can’t be fixed without facing up to the scope of the changes it will take to fix them. In each case, I have done my best to choose from myriad suggestions on offer from experts – those that can be started quickly. I’ve then gone on to put them in the context of what the medium- and long-term vision looks like.

Of course this gives scope for many to disagree with me. Why didn’t I focus on other errors, other possible solutions? If this series sparks that debate, I will be happy that I’ve achieved my objective. We have to start somewhere, and it needs to be in a place the public can relate to, even in fields where we are not experts.

It will take us out of our comfort zones. Successful nations have done it, when leaders understood enough of the contemporary world and their own country’s government and economy. The secret, if it is a secret, is just that – you have to understand enough about both global trends and which of these your own country is best equipped to capitalise on.

That’s the formula, and it’s simple to articulate, but difficult to implement. How do you know if someone’s view of the key global trends and your country’s capabilities is accurate? Who to trust?

Defence, in part because it concerns the democratic era’s original sin – the notorious arms deal – and because 10 years ago we sent 15 brave and talented soldiers to their death in battle in the Central African Republic (CAR), and because we now have soldiers fighting for us in Mozambique and risking the same fate.

In the CAR, every aim of that venture failed. The government we were protecting fell the day we left CAR. In July 2023, the CAR held a referendum to overthrow major tenets of its constitution and remove term limits on the presidency, a referendum overseen by the Russian Wagner mercenary group.

Second is education, something I was criticised for not tackling in my book Cyril’s Choices, An Agenda for Reform, and which, of course, is key to long-term fulfilment for citizens.

Blueprint for recovery

After education, I go to policing and security, where it turns out that, as in education, there are talented and experienced South Africans ready to serve, but overlooked because they don’t have political endorsement. Education and the justice system are entirely fixable, but not without tough decisions and hard work.

From there we go to foreign policy, which suffers from a lack of clarity about how ours serves both the national interest and our national values. Clear foreign policy is critical to what we ask our defence forces to do, but also to finding the best technology partners, markets and our role in global affairs. It should be debated more deeply in public.

From there we progress to the economy, if you’re still with me. Is it possible to create hundreds of thousands of good jobs, to return South Africa as a major force with unprecedented influence in Africa and the world? There is plentiful research to show it can. There are also investment funds ready if a public-interested government remains well on top of its game.

The key to South Africa’s potential lies in our ability to recognise global trends best suited to South African conditions and resources and act on them rapidly. Mining and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe is wrong to hold us back from the green economy, but not because his concerns aren’t valid.

Coal jobs will be vulnerable. But he is wrong because this is a powerful global trend that nobody can stop. It is also one with immense potential for new jobs, for motor car manufacturing, for reindustrialising by becoming a player in renewable energy sources. The climate change arguments are sufficiently obvious not to need canvassing here.

Blocking change only means leaving it to the Chinese, who embrace change with a vengeance. Why don’t we study that when we sit around the table in BRICS?

Holding back the tide will fail, and in the long run leave workers worse off than the alternative. The apartheid government wasn’t good at embracing change quickly enough to benefit from it, and the ANC hasn’t been much good at it either.

The funny thing is that in the immediate aftermath of Codesa, for a brief time, we were. I was involved with getting a new broadcasting industry started in 1994. And it was successful.

Radio stations we licensed still thrive (not all of them, of course) three decades later. South African artists cut their teeth on new radio stations and went on to sign Hollywood deals. Trevor Noah got his start in a 2am timeslot on one of them. The sector grew and grew.

Others brought a revolution in the cellphone business and casinos. Whatever the motive, there was growth and new jobs. Profits have funded black children’s scholarships and other needs. But that embrace of change didn’t last. Newly entrenched players dug in.

There was javelin throwing – players in the government threw the javelin, so that when they left the government they would know where to go to catch it. Millionaires overnight. In the process, they blocked competitors, competing ideas. Once vibrant sectors slowed down.

Embracing change is where the benefits are. Blocking change only means leaving it to the Chinese, who embrace change with a vengeance. Why don’t we study that when we sit around the table in BRICS?

There will be mistakes. Study what the experts say and judge if it makes sense. If it does, try it. Don’t bet everything on black – or red – there is no one simple formula that can be carried to the end without adjustments and setbacks.

Excessive delay is worse than the wrong choice. A common error running through the years has been dismissing the research of non-partisan experts, in academia, business, science and grassroots organisers.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa’s elite handsomely benefit from land reform too

Black South Africans are gaining education and experience, but not fast enough. Population trends in South Africa will be decisive in South Africa as they are globally.

The success of countries will be altered by population shifts. Japan, China, Germany and most of Western Europe, as well as Russia, have ageing populations. Israel’s may be tilting towards unskilled religious families who do not study non-religious subjects. This will affect growth, jobs and innovation.

Africa will see massive population growth, especially further north on the continent. At home, the white population is shrinking and ageing, while the black population grows at about 1.5% pa. That means whites with skills are ageing and dying out. Those skills need to be transferred to the predominantly black next generation while they can.

We are at a turning point. The great Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping galvanised his nation with the theme that “Reform is China’s second revolution”.

He did pretty well for China. Compare the turn China took versus Russia, now a third-tier power that truly suffered from the resource curse, dependent on oil, gas, its nuclear programme and guns.

South Africa has the great advantage of a better Constitution than both. But can we keep it? Or will decline benefit extremists who blame the Constitution for not fixing things, when the Constitution only tells us what we need to do.

If we don’t fix it, political opportunists will tell us it’s the Constitution’s fault. In power too long, power goes to peoples’ heads. It can happen to anyone. We must rediscover our north star before it’s too late. DM

Next: The formula to fix the SANDF.

South African journalist, author and policy consultant John Matisonn’s book Cyril’s Choices, An Agenda for Reform, explains how South Africa’s missteps led to the current malaise and how to change. It is based on four years in the Mandela administration, on the SABC interim board in 2017, work in the United Nations as chairperson of the Electoral Media Commission in Afghanistan and acting project manager of the UN’s election project, and a lifetime study of successes and failures in national economic turnarounds that started at the University of Chicago, where he studied the cases of Japan and Russia.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Louise Louise says:

    Hello John, thank you for a very thoughtful article. I would just like to highlight a few quotes:
    “Corruption is not the cause of South Africa’s malaise; it’s the effect. It’s the consequence of mistakes.”
    ** “The government is floundering. Public order breaks down too often, and public ** order policing seems haphazard. ”
    ** “Where to start”

    Corruption might not be the cause of the malaise but it is the consequence of two things:

    1) The primary agenda of the government is NOT to do what is best for the people
    2) The “west” still has control of the government

    Therefore, given the above 2 points, the consequences of what we see are not “mistakes”. Mistakes happen when someone is sincerely trying their best to do the right thing and just falls short of achieving that. On the other hand, deliberately destroying infrastructure (or allowing it to happen) are NOT mistakes. No, these are criminal actions and quite possibly treasonous.

    The government is not “floundering” – it is wallowing in the spoils of what it has been told to do, or to avoid doing.

    What is the solution? First, change the voting system. Make the MPs personally liable for their actions on a local level – we need direct elections. Then clean out the corruption in SAPS and judiciary. We need law and order and competent officials. Next, every single decision has to be guided by this question “what is good for the community and people?”, not “what is good for me?”.

    • Ben Harper says:

      I honestly don’t get how you arrive at the conclusion that corruption is a “consequence” of “the West being in control of Government”, That is some serious tin foil hattage right there! Corruption is caused by GREED plain and simple and the malaise and collapse of the country is a direct result of this.

      • Dee Bee says:

        The west being in control of this government confused me too! Our voting record at the UN over thr last decade has been more ‘anti-western’ than those of China, Cuba or Russia!

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    Alot of these suggestions require introspection and accountability of the ANC. I have yet to see any of that (have we ever witnessed this in the ANC?). When it comes to the ANC, you almost expect them to do the wrong thing, and very often they simply do, no matter the well intended warnings of society around them. Often before it has been suggested that ministries decrease in size, that government wage increases at current pace are unaffordable, that bluelight brigades are unacceptable etc ec
    tc, yet to no avail. We have an energy minister that has been extremely resistant to adding generation capabilities even while being warned over 10 years ago, cadre deployment has been named as a major threat to our economic viability yet the ANC will rather go to court than admit they are part of the problem. The Zuma jail cop out, the phala phala dollars clearly show that the ANC is simply uninterested in a greater good that does not align with the ANC and its personal goals. It doesn’t matter where you look, this lack of understanding, this ever prevalence of greed, this constant shifting of clear blame is omnipresent within the ANC. Currently they are in full swing of blaming absolutely everything on Apartheid again.
    Until the ANC can accept some kind of accountability of their own actions that have clearly brought us to this place, most suggestions in this article are wishful thinking at best, just about impossible for the ANC to implement at worst.

  • Brian Algar says:

    John, with all due respect I think you have used the legalization of cannabis to assist you in writing this article. Whilst everything you write makes sense in a “normal” world, we are dealing with the ANC here. All of what you suggest is certainly possible, but it would rely on the political will of the ANC to even begin to make the changes required, which is highly unlikely given their track record over the last 10 years. I have seen zero, and I mean zero inclination from any ANC cadre to do anything that will benefit the people if there isn’t a benefit to the ANC or to themselves. I cannot see the incompetent ANC cadres in parliament giving up their cushy jobs and perks to allow a competent person drive the reforms needed. The ONLY solution for South Africa is to get rid of the ANC.

    • Solly Moeng says:

      John captured this very well: “A common error running through the years has been dismissing the research of non-partisan experts, in academia, business, science and grassroots organisers.”

      The ANC has an deeply imbedded culture that dismisses anything, no matter how wise, that is perceived to threaten its hegemony. If South Africa stands to benefit but not the ANC, what is good for the ANC gets priority.

  • says:

    “The decline of South African construction firms partly explains the rise of the construction mafia” – is it not the other way around?

  • Peter Streng says:

    Much food for thought. But I guess that John Matisonn’s considered suggestions, recommendations and proposals will predictably fall on deaf ears … to many cushy jobs and Cadre deployment to be adversely affected for the cANCer’s liking!

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