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20 February 2017 12:38 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivor Chipkin

The Bonds That Tie: Changing South Africa’s public culture

  • Ivor Chipkin
    ivor.jpg
    Ivor Chipkin

    Ivor Chipkin is the Director and Founder of the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI) in Johannesburg. PARI is South Africa’s leading research institute on the study of government and the State.

Patrick Bond has published a “rebuttal” of my short article in the Daily Maverick from October 16, 2016. This is a very welcome development. His initial response was to demand an apology and when this was not forthcoming to report the Daily Maverick to the Press Council. In other words, rather than engage in debate, he sought to shut it down. It is a gesture that reveals something about South Africa’s public culture.

The ANC is paying a heavy price for its intolerance of criticism and its disdain of independent thought. The lack of real debate in South Africa is also getting in the way of addressing South Africa’s post-colonial challenges.

In the context of the spurious charges against Pravin Gordhan, Ivan Pillay and Oupa Magashula and other senior public servants, a progressive social movement is emerging. It is focused on the defence of public institutions and of public officials from political interference. It promises to unsettle South Africa’s public culture.

This is an unprecedented development. A year ago or even six months ago it was impossible to imagine crowds on the streets rallying behind bureaucrats. And yet, this is what is happening.

It reflects a new, emerging awareness that 1) there are capable public officials in the state, 2) since 1994 effective administrations have been built in parts of government, especially in the areas of taxation and public finances and 3) professional administrations are both a bulwark against corruption and a condition of service delivery.

By international, historical standards we have been quick to get to this point. Still, this embryonic movement faces formidable obstacles. It is coming up against those who benefit from weak institutions. It also has to contend with clichés and stereotypes about government and public officials and with superficial remedies about how to fix them.

Falsehoods

Bond is outraged. Why? He complained to the Press Council that my article was unfair because I made a “damaging falsehood”: suggesting “that in [his] alleged view, the potential firing of Finance Gordhan by Jacob Zuma would be progressive”. How should one read comments like the following?

There is every potential for students and their community, youth, labour, feminist and environmental allies to find routes forward to a new society [...] that would follow [from] an end to both the influence of the neoliberal bloc represented by Gordhan, and the populist patronage of Zuma’s last allies”.

This is clear enough. Bond wants Gordhan to go – in the name of a progressive agenda. The only qualification is that he wants President Zuma and his Gupta allies to go too. But therein lies the point of my earlier article: In the current situation the National Treasury is the main line of defence against the “patronage politics” of the President and his allies.

It gets worse. Bond clearly does not approve of the President’s politics but he warns students and other progressives to be cautious of “prioritising a good-governance agenda” because “a more neoliberal, anti-poor agenda would result if Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Zuma”. Andile Mngxitama and the Black First Land First movement make a similar argument and, consistent with their analysis, have rallied behind Zuma and the Gupta family against the National Treasury.

As it turns out, my article was not directed specifically at him. It referred to a tendency in South African politics – a Manichean world – where the removal of Gordhan could be construed as “progressive”. What is more, I made an altogether different argument about the National Treasury than defend neoliberalism. I argued that an assault on the department would weaken and further fragment the state.

Curious silences

Nonetheless, it is worth revisiting some of Bond’s arguments. They misdiagnose South Africa’s contemporary malaise. For the sake of space I will comment on two.

  • National Treasury under Gordhan is responsible for fiscal austerity, especially as it affects beneficiaries of social grants and university students.
  • National Treasury sacrifices future generations to environmental catastrophe by funding carbon-based energy projects like the Medupi and Kusile coal power-stations.

It is true that at an individual level, social grants have not increased at the rate of inflation. In other words households are becoming objectively poorer. In the Minister of Social Development, who thinks such households can support themselves on a mere R753 a month, we have a modern-day Marie Antoinette.

What Bond does not mention, however, other than as a passing remark without any detail, is that those benefiting from government grants have increased from roughly 4-million in 1994 to almost 17-million in 2015. That is, the number of beneficiaries has risen by 425% during the period when neoliberalism supposedly set in. Today nearly 60% of the national budget is allocated to the social wage. This includes money for social grants but it also includes free municipal services for those who qualify, subsidised health costs and exemption from personal tax for those earning less than R6,000 per month.

Key information is also left out when Bond discusses the funding of tertiary education. Consider TVET colleges. It is true that funding per student in colleges has declined over the last several years. The 83% increase in DHET funding between 2010 and 2015 has not kept pace with the 96% increase in enrolments over the same period. In the university sector there has been no such decrease. Since 2008/2009 real spending to universities has risen by 11% a year, far higher than inflation. As I mentioned in my previous article it is the profile of funding that has changed. Block grants have fallen by 11% while money to NSFAS has increased from 9% to 13% of university income. Effectively, money for infrastructure, staff and research has come down in favour of fee subsidies.

At a policy level, the South African government has preferred a strategy of less for more, rather than more for fewer. You might disagree with such an approach, but this is not neoliberal austerity.

There are currently several efforts to find additional resources for tertiary education. Quantifying the proposals of #FMF-sympathetic students, Judge Dennis Davis, head of the tax commission, estimates that they would only yield a third of what is needed to finance free, universal tertiary education.

Where do we find the additional money? One route is to reduce corruption and wasteful expenditure.

Bond has high expectations of procurement reform to fund free education. The Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI) was the first organisation properly to highlight deficiencies in the current model. The institute is currently working with the Office of the Chief Procurement Officer to reform the system. This is probably the “prolific” consultancy work that Bond falsely accuses me of.

Endangering the Environment

If Bond’s discussion of neoliberalism and austerity lacks nuance and, curiously, omits key information, his second complaint is simply wrong.

There is an emerging consensus that South Africa’s 2008 energy crisis has been addressed by making it worse in the medium and long term – both for the economy and for the environment. Bond blames the National Treasury for South Africa’s coal-based investments and other white elephant projects. His claim reveals a basic ignorance of government and the relationship, in particular, of the National Treasury to State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs).

In the case of SOEs responsibility for policy is vested in Cabinet, which instructs SOEs through responsible ministries. For Eskom, the ministry concerned is Minerals and Energy. In other words, the decision to build the Medupi and Kusile coal-fired power stations was taken by Cabinet, not by the Minister of Finance. National Treasury’s relationship to companies like Eskom, Transnet and SAA is as representative of government as shareholder. During the Mbeki presidency when Trevor Manuel was Minister of Finance the close relationship between them gave the department influence beyond its formal position. But those days are long gone.

The Public Protector’s State of Capture report provides dramatic evidence of what we already know: the SOEs have become a law unto themselves. The toxic mix of institutional autonomy and political interference has allowed the President, the Zuma family and the Guptas to twist companies like Eskom into their private service. You would never know this from reading Patrick Bond, though. State-Owned Enterprises are simply reduced to automatons of the National Treasury.

A renewed public domain

Taken together, Bond’s arguments prevent an appreciation of the current situation. The ANC has pursued a programme of welfarism (not neoliberalism) on the social front, yet has left in place and even exacerbated features of the economy that produce inequality and poverty in the first place. How do we reconcile welfarism, development, economic growth and democracy going forward?

It is difficult to know in current circumstances. Our public discourse often lacks nuance or evidence or theoretical consistency. It substitutes ad hominem remarks and slogans – “neoliberalism”, “white capital”, “free markets” – for analysis.

A new reform movement is stirring that cuts across historical solidarities. Furthermore it is associated with new questions and a new style of asking them. For defending key state institutions and rallying behind honourable public servants requires pushing back against a cluster of prejudices and generalisations about government and about the South African state. It has had to muster evidence and make compelling arguments to overcome disinterest, scepticism and downright lies. In this way, it promises a new public culture; one founded on critique and argument and evidence and not simply self-righteousness. DM

Ivor Chipkin is the Director of the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI). This article in no way represents the views of his colleagues.

  • Ivor Chipkin
    ivor.jpg
    Ivor Chipkin

    Ivor Chipkin is the Director and Founder of the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI) in Johannesburg. PARI is South Africa’s leading research institute on the study of government and the State.

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