Opinionista Mmusi Maimane 19 June 2014

State building versus nation building

Our government seems to be increasing its number of ministries with-out a noticeable effect on efficiency. Could it be a case of too many cooks – and a still largely unattended broth?

On 25 May, President Zuma announced his new Cabinet with a total of 35 government ministries – one more ministry than in President Zuma’s 2009 Cabinet. The Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities (DWCPD) was split with the portfolio of women being placed in the Presidency and portfolios of children and people with disabilities placed in the Department of Social Development.

Now, with the introduction of the new Department of Small Businesses, one must ask whether a bigger government with more ministers, more directors-general and more red-tape to navigate can make an effective difference in people’s lives? In other words, would simply fielding a bigger team of 35 players ever win you the Soccer World Cup?

When one looks at the capacity of South Africa’s institutions, and their ability to serve and deliver to the needs of South Africans, what we see is a combination of functional and dysfunctional institutions.  Institutions such as SARS, the Auditor-General and the Reserve Bank are generally well-run and strong institutions. On the other hand, there are departments such as Public Works, Mineral Resources, Water Affairs (now Water and Sanitation), and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries where inefficiency, qualified audits, corruption and poor service delivery are the order of the day.

It is strange, then, that the trend emerges that on government’s income side, it has established and maintained strong and generally efficient state institutions. However, on the government expenditure side, we see weak leadership and bloated government departments unable to serve or deliver to the South African people.

Broadly speaking, this trend shows us the vital difference in performance when comparing large state capacity to a few strong institutions. Large state capacity will often lead to an overlap and duplication of functions. Whereas streamlining government to fewer but stronger institutions means that our government departments retain skill and expertise and will be able to continue to deliver on their constitutional mandate despite transitions between political parties. The failure of the DWCPD to make any tangible difference in the lives of women, children or people with disabilities is testament to this fact.

The DWCPD was established with the mandate of “promoting, facilitating, coordinating and monitoring the realisation of the rights and the empowerment women, children and people with disabilities”. On the face of it, a noble pursuit, but “promoting, facilitating, coordinating and monitoring” are all consultant-speak, which do not present any measurable goal or objective for the department. These objectives should be the purview of every government department but instead they are given a dedicated department where issues relevant to women, children and people with disabilities could be pigeon-holed. The department was reduced to a publicity stunt – the façade – of a genuinely noble cause.

After five years, DWCPD has done very little to make any difference in the lives of women, children or people with disabilities. In fact, quite the opposite is true. In the face of continuously high levels of sexual violence and disempowerment of particularly rural women, the DWCPD attempted to legislate itself into relevance by pushing for the Women Empowerment Gender Equality Bill which would only serve women who were already employed and empowered.

Friday’s protests by the rights group Disabled People South Africa (DPSA) shed some light on how badly the department has equally failed people with disabilities. And this begs the question of whether another stand-alone government department that was established by President Zuma, but failed to do what was mandated since 2009 for people with disabilities was in fact the correct approach for government to realise our Constitutional rights.

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development spearheaded the controversial Traditional Courts Bill, which was clearly at odds with the Constitutional guarantee of equality for all and, in fact, undermined the rights of women. The opposition to the Traditional Courts Bill by the then Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Minister Xingwana, although admirable, could not deter the progress of this Bill through Parliament.

The reason? Minister Xingwana was in a different department. Her voice was merely added to the sea of commentators opposing the Traditional Courts Bill and was summarily ignored.

Fortunately, the Traditional Courts Bill lapsed before the end of the fourth Parliament but it is not yet clear whether the Department of Justice intends to re-introduce it in the fifth Parliament.

This discord between government departments and the various spheres of government arises because instead of building strong, comprehensive government institutions, the ANC government compensates for its failures by increasing the size of the state. The size of Cabinet is an affirmation of the lack of skill apparent in our government. Much of this stems from placing party politics above the needs of the South African people.

By the thinking that more ministers solve more problems, and ministers with specific titles solve specific problems, we will likely soon see the creation of a Department of Corruption Fighting with an annual budget larger than the state’s existing R30 billion corruption bill. We cannot spend more money on plugging the holes that are created by failures to deliver in the first place. It is simply unsustainable.

Depending on the way you cut it, there are now around 18 government departments in the economics cluster tasked with stimulating our economy and creating jobs, including:

  • Finance;
  • Trade and Industry;
  • Economic Development;
  • Labour;
  • Transport;
  • Rural Development and Land Reform;
  • Energy;
  • Public Enterprises; and
  • the newly established Small Businesses.

At a time when government should be speaking with one definitive voice, instead it adopts a shotgun approach and hopes for the best.

Indeed this was the very rationale behind the creation of the National Development Plan. However, the glimmer of hope provided by the NDP quickly wanes when one considers the parallel development and divergent approaches provided by the other economic plans developed by government: the New Growth Path developed by the superfluous Department of Economic Development and the Industrial Policy Action Plan developed by the Department of Trade and Industry.

South Africa needs to streamline and professionalise our public service as called for in the National Development Plan. Consider departments and institutions where this has happened.

Consider the effect that the appointment of Aaron Motsoaledi as Minister of Health has had on the performance of the Department of Health. Even when the Department of Home Affairs was in disarray, President Zuma appointed the “no nonsense” Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as Minister to get things back on track.

By appointing a professional, hard-working and properly skilled individual at the head of our institutions, previously weak and under-performing government departments have been transformed into strong institutions that begin to live up to their Constitutional and legislative mandates. Why then is the ANC government’s approach to our economy and job creation so different?

At the end of the day, it is not more people that get the job done but rather getting the right person to do the job that matters. This is best achieved by having fewer but stronger ministries, backed by strong institutions – all of which must be committed to our Constitutional rights. After all, would you rather have one Lionel Messi on your team or a team of 11 average strikers? Give me one Messi any day. DM



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