Opinionista Saul Musker 17 November 2017

View from afar: Democracy dies in the dark

There is the famous parable of a frog in a pot of water. As the heat slowly increases, the frog fails to recognise danger, so gradual is the rise in temperature. By the time the water boils, it is too late to escape. So it is with democracy, as experience across the world demonstrates.

In recent days, as rumours have reached a crescendo about the prospect of President Jacob Zuma’s impending announcement of free tertiary education for one year, much attention has rightly been focused on the wisdom of such a policy for the fiscal health of the economy. As the reports of both the Heher Commission and the earlier Davis Tax Commission suggest, the cost of fully subsidising university fees would put severe strain on government’s resources, in the context of stagnant economic growth and declining revenues.

The trade-offs would be harsh, and there would necessarily be losers in the process. This is not to say, of course, that a reform of the existing funding model is unnecessary – to the contrary, both reports, and virtually all of the submissions to the Heher Commission (could we call them “Public Heherings”?), agreed that the current system is unfair and dysfunctional and places an undue strain on the poorest students –who, as a result, often struggle to make it through their degrees. There is no doubt that students who cannot afford to fund their own education must be helped effectively and not prevented from studying or excluded for their debts. It is callous, pure and simple, to suggest otherwise,

Nonetheless, there is a larger dynamic in play which transcends the debates around funding for higher education. Indeed, three worrying trends are evident in the political machinations that have surrounded events of the past week. And while all three bode ill for democracy and good governance in South Africa, there is a risk that they will be lost in the debate around education – in the euphoria of the student movement, and the horror of those who fear its consequences.

First, it has become clear that President Zuma has chosen to ignore the work of both commissions, whose mandate it was to carefully examine all of the available evidence in preparing their advice. This is nothing new, of course; since Zuma assumed office, presidential commissions have become a way of distracting public attention and kicking the can down the road, rather than actually engaging with issues of critical policy importance (think of the tepid response, for instance, to the report of the Marikana Commission). Zuma has made no show of hiding his willingness to ignore and sidestep the work of Chapter 9 institutions, not least the Public Protector. Instead, throughout his two terms of office, he has made decisions on the advice (and sometimes at the insistence) of personal friends, benefactors, and clients. In this particular instance – if reports are to be believed – he has relied on his daughter’s erstwhile love interest, a young upstart with no apparent experience in policy formulation (and, let’s not forget, a spy) who produced his funding model from apparently nowhere but his own hazy fever dreams.

The fact that the President would mandate a full commission to spend millions of rand and months of effort in a prolonged, exhaustive consultative process to produce a report running over 700 pages, only to defer to the whisper in his ear of a close associate, is emblematic of the way in which this government is run. No matter what one thinks of the Heher Commission’s findings or the feasibility of free education – and there is certainly room for debate in that regard – the dumbing-down and personalisation of important policy formulation, not to mention its opaqueness, is a sign of serious danger. Policy that is not based on evidence and consultation is pure diktat.

Second, as the recent resignation of Michael Sachs as head of the Treasury’s budget office has revealed, Zuma has succeeded in carrying out an internal power grab by drawing the budget process into his own political domain. The newly-minted “Presidential Fiscal Committee”, comprised of a handful of Cabinet ministers, has displaced the team of non-political civil servants who managed the budget process in the Ministry of Finance. This will, of course, make it easier for the President to push through his political priorities with little regard for the fiscal repercussions. The centralisation of power under the Presidency, and the diminished independence of the Treasury, deals a significant blow to the framework of responsible public finance which had prevailed until now (and which had largely kept the fiscus afloat).

Third, and perhaps most worrying, is the prospect of a massive increase in public spending in the year preceding the 2019 national election. There is a massive academic literature which points to the incentives of political leaders in neo-patrimonial regimes to use public expenditure to increase their chances of winning an election, or simply to secure their own legacy as they leave office. In many states across the African continent and elsewhere, cycles of fiscal boom and bust have closely correlated with electoral cycles – peaks in spending in the year preceding an election raise levels of public debt, leading to a crisis and eventual bailout once the election is secured. After debt stabilises and the economy begins to grow again, another election hits with the concomitant injection of public revenues, and the cycle repeats. This is most evident in countries –notably, Ghana and Zambia – where competitive elections raise the perceived incentive to increase the pre-election budget deficit. Public spending is viewed as a way of securing political support in the short term, with the consequences to be dealt with only once the election has passed.

There is an argument to be made that Zuma has always thought in this way, but has in the past been at least somewhat constrained by the markets, the party and the rest of government. Now that his term as head of party and government is coming to an end, he is going for broke, and becoming increasingly reliant on his inner circle with scant regard for the consequences.

Put these three pieces together, and a clear picture emerges: Zuma has ignored the advice of experts and independent institutions; deferred instead to political partisans whose goals are aligned with his own, rather than with the interests of the country as a whole; centralised control of the budget process to remove impediments to accessing the state coffers; and planned a spending spree for the year preceding what should be a highly-contested election.

This is quite obviously a recipe for disaster.

What, then, are the implications for the future of South African democracy? The frightening reality is that democracy does not usually die with a bang, with a revolution, with soldiers marching through the streets. More often than not, it is slowly and incrementally eroded, with the façade kept intact (free and fair elections, various layers of government, the empty shells of once-independent bodies) while the substance is hollowed out behind the scenes. It is easy to focus on State Capture, corruption, the abuse of the security agencies, and all of the illegal activities of this government. We must not neglect, however, the many perfectly legal ways in which state capacity and effectiveness are eroded, which more readily slip under the radar. Democracy dies in the dark, out of sight, and sometimes very gradually.

In this sense, we are all frogs in a pot of water, slowly coming to the boil. It is not too late, though, to switch off the stove. DM

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