Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 28 January 2020

Ramaphosa’s new dawn is stretching into day, and the results are coming 

It is encouraging that young activists have made supportive statements about the value of meritocracy as the basis for professionalising the public service and creating a capable state. But this has to be a meritocracy that is different from the ideologically-bound one associated with privilege.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a “new dawn” it brought out the clowns, and political opposition who would, rapidly, point to any of a range of things that are dysfunctional or malfunctioning. From potholes to pit toilets, gangster politicians to service delivery failures – never mind that the country has been beset by these problems for more than a decade – talk of a new dawn was ridiculed. It’s a common and expedient political tactic that purposefully ignores the processes the president initiated as part of his “new dawn”. 

But, as the old cliché goes, there are none so blind as those who refuse to see… Or maybe the laughter at the back of the class was simply a malfunction in the Superior Logic firmware. Before we get on with the story, let’s help the fellows out. It’s sad, but some people who believe in the superiority of their own knowledge sometimes need spoon-feeding. 

Pay attention at the back. As used in Ramaphosa’s speech, the expression “new dawn” does not mean crash boom bang, and something emerges from nothing. Use of the term “dawn” in this instance, refers to something akin to a revision, a stripping away of the old and replacing it with something better – all of which are process-bound. It is the start of something, which we will get to, with evidence below. There, now, you can stare into the middle distance like someone relieving himself in the grass, wondering what he is going to use as toilet paper…

Let me get something out of the way. This is not a mini-hagiography of Cyril Ramaphosa. There are very many things he could have done over the past two or three years that he failed to do – by accident or design. He has said things, or done things that I would have done differently. Then again, I’m not a politician. I’m not a member of the ruling party, and, well, I don’t have to appease Ace Magashule or David Mabuza. I don’t have to refer to Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, Nomvula Mokonyane, Bathabile Dlamini, Faith Muthambi, Malusi Gigaba or Mosebenzi Zwane as “comrade”. Fortunately, for me, I am not the one furiously pumping the brakes of a runaway train. To borrow a phrase from an old colleague (who supports that other club in North London, that has a trophy or two in a box somewhere), I am but a lowly newspaper man.

It’s a slow burner, but it’s happening 

In August last year, Daily Maverick ran an analysis, in which we wrote: “Good news is falling in drips, spits and spots before a storm of litigation will be upon us. If we ignore the catastrophism and the loud noises of distraction and deflection by populists… we may well be able to recognise the progress that has been made in weeding out the looters and miscreants from political office and offices of state.”

This weeding out is part of the professionalisation of the state, and building a capable state and a public service “immersed in the development agenda [and] insulated from undue political interference”. (See Chapter 12, p 407 of the NDP 2030.)

A capable developmental state

For those who care to consider evidence of progress, consider the following facts: Key recommendations of the NDP are being implemented. While I have expressed scepticism of what remains of the current National Planning Commission, it is encouraging that aspects of the original document are being put in place. First among this is Ramaphosa’s emphasis on professionalising the public service, starting with putting into place people who are qualified, and not simply because they are politically connected. Appointments are to be made on merit. 

It is encouraging that young activists have made supportive statements about the value of meritocracy as the basis for professionalising the public service, strengthening the developmental objectives of the country, and creating a capable state. In his address to the Business Unity South Africa Business Economic Indaba in Sandton on 14 January 2020, Kamal Ramburuth-Hurt said: 

“A system based purely on equality without equity was not possible 20 years ago when a meritocracy would have reproduced a racist and narrow state. However, at this point in our history, we have enough skilled, progressive, young black people for such a system.”

In other words, this has to be a meritocracy that is different from the ideologically-bound one associated with privilege that is vertically stacked over decades and sometimes over centuries. 

Another recommendation that emanated from the first phase of the National Planning Commission is to reduce, and stop, as far as it is possible, the practice of public servants doing business with the state. It was reported on 13 January that the Minister of Public Works, Patricia de Lille, would be weeding out some of the estimated 3,700 public works employees who are doing business with the department. The problem with this system is that people who have political connections tend to get contracts that are “irregular”. If the political interface with the public service is reconfigured (I should say broken), this practice of public servants doing business with the state should end. 

Also encouraging, with the toxic Tom Moyane out of the way, is the fact that the SA Revenue Service is getting its groove back. In November last year, SARS won a R1-billion tax evasion case against a cash and carry store. Earlier last year, two SARS officials, Pranesh Maharaj and Reuben Moodley, were caught in the act of accepting a cash bribe of R100,000 and were sentenced to three years in jail. Altogether, SARS’ unit that tackles illicit financial flows reported that it had recovered R2.6-billion in taxes since April 2019.

And on the other side of town, Randall Carolissen has turned the beleaguered National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) around – a propaganda windfall for Blade Nzimande, the Minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology who declared last week that NSFAS was open for business.

So, while most of the population are tapping their fingers waiting for the issue of orange onesies to high-profile state-capturers and wondering what’s taking the National Prosecuting Authority so long, and while the crosshairs remain on the back of Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, the new dawn announced by the president is stretching into day. It’s difficult, at the best of times, to be optimistic about South Africa, but it does not take much courage, or blindness, to see that there are things falling into place. If only the brakes on the runaway train, that the president is pumping madly, will build up some fluid and pressure to halt what sometimes seems like an inevitable disaster. DM

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