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What it will take to build a capable state in South Africa

Mzukisi Qobo is head of Wits School of Governance (designate), University of the Witwatersrand.

A capable state, with autonomy from political factions, is best placed to respond to changes and harness opportunities for development. Such states value innovation, human capital and merit. They emphasise economic performance, education, healthcare and infrastructure.

First published by The Conversation

A major factor that undermines South Africa’s social and economic progress is the deficit in the capabilities of the state. This gap was identified long ago by the National Planning Commission, first in its diagnostic report in 2011, and again when it issued its final National Development Plan in 2012. The plan is the country’s blueprint for fixing its problems.

I define a capable state as a system of government that functions with relative autonomy from narrow ideological interests. Its parts work in a coordinated fashion to achieve clearly defined goals. It conducts its work efficiently and is effective in delivering services and critical economic infrastructure.

The core function of a state is to mobilise resources to meet its developmental challenges and manage long-term social and economic change. A capable state, with autonomy from political factions, is best placed to respond to changes and harness opportunities for development. Such states value innovation, human capital and merit. They emphasise economic performance, education, healthcare and infrastructure.

Currently, the South African state works in a fragmented manner and with no shared vision.

The reason it can’t deliver on its social and economic obligations lies in poor political choices and defective political management. Part of the problem is the relationship between the political machinery of the governing ANC and the bureaucratic machinery of the state.

Adding to the challenge is that the ANC governs through a tripartite alliance with the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. These seek to influence government policy and decisions.

It is impossible to build state capabilities in a sustained manner without overcoming these many tensions. This requires a solid nerve centre – essentially the presidency. President Cyril Ramaphosa has massive political capital that he is under-using.

He needs to mobilise resources across the state towards achieving a defined set of strategic objectives and priorities. H also needs to stare down factional and ideological interests that circle the state and its agencies. He should then use his executive authority to translate his strategic objectives into measurable outcomes that make a noticeable difference in the economy and society.

The process currently underway to sign performance agreements with government ministers is a step in the right direction. But, without any system for cracking the whip, this may fall apart as it did under Ramaphosa’s predecessor Jacob Zuma.

Capacity constraints

The severity of capacity and resource constraints varies across different levels of government. Some of these relate to substandard political appointees. As is clear from the Auditor General’s reports over the years, at the local government level, capacity deficiencies are largely due to the absence of technical skills and execution failures. And municipalities routinely disregard recommendations.

Skills shortages are found in key areas such as project management, procurement and contract management as well as financial management. The ability to execute mandates and deliver services to communities is weak too.

Political management also matters when it comes to building great institutions – the other half of the equation of a capable state. Weak political management is clear from the parlous situation of state-owned enterprises, such as Eskom and South African Airways.

It’s also evident in defects in the institutions responsible for maintaining rule of law. It contributes to the tortuously slow grind of the Zondo Commission into grand corruption, which has yet to result in any prosecutions. There are also ambiguities in policy decisions in key economic sectors such as information and communications technology, energy and mining.

The calibre of politicians who preside over the state determines the norms and standards by which the bureaucratic machinery of the state functions. As the founding father of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, pointed out: “To get good government, you must have good people in charge of government.”

A country can have institutions and policies that look good. But if there are no capable and ethical politicians who protect them, they are doomed to be ineffectual and not reach their full potential. It is impossible to build a capable state outside an acceptable ethical framework, and the necessary range of human capabilities at a country’s disposal. At the moment, South Africa suffers capability deficiencies and institutional stasis due to poor political management.

What next

For Ramaphosa, the important lever of statecraft for creating results in a democratic society is to act decisively in getting things done. This requires awareness of his power and authority, skills to read the political mood and a strong urge to act decisively.

As the nerve centre of the state, he needs to signify acceptable norms and be hard on errant public officials. This should start with members of the executive who are underperforming. At the municipal and provincial levels, the centre needs to use fiscal tools to stop wastage and poor performance.

Effective leaders in government who lead through moments of crisis should immediately grasp the purposes and uses of power. They can achieve a great deal more through astute political management and centralised decision-making. They should focus on getting results rather than fixating on long processes of consultation as is the case in South Africa.

Finally, there are areas where the government can achieve quick wins through well-structured partnerships to fix capacity deficiencies.

It can tap into the resources in the private sector. A number of mining companies, for example, could help build capabilities at the local government level. This could help address constraints in areas where their workers live. Such shared value may help improve the reputation of those companies.

We should, however, be careful of private sector firms and business leaders that are only interested in pursuing their narrow interests through proximity to political leadership. Partnerships with the private sector should be based on resolving clearly defined and specific challenges.

Building capabilities is key to retooling the state for higher performance. The starting point should be to fix political management at the centre. DM


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