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Turning South African into a capable and efficient developmental state


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

To transition to a capable developmental state requires a range of radical measures which would put the state at the heart of the transformational process, most notably in a leadership role.

Some years back while working in the executive mayor’s office in the city of Johannesburg, fellow intellectual provocateur Jak Koseff and I developed an input about building a capable developmental state. It came to mind again for me recently because of an overwhelming concern about the R500-billion stimulus package during this Covid-19 pandemic. Many question whether the state’s capacity to implement such a plan is up to scratch. Can the bureaucracy implement such a plan or will it just be another opening for potentially massive corruption?

What do we mean when we speak of a capable state?

Matters all South Africans are expected to wrestle with include:

The extent to which the capacity of the post-apartheid state has been developed to address the injustices of the past, to advance human development and foster an inclusive, non-racial and non-sexist society.

How does this manifest itself across the spheres of government? What are the achievements and the gaps between expectation and reality of the expressed intention of building a developmental state?

And, is the notion of “developmentalism” shared across the various political schools of thought? Related to this is the expected role of non-state actors in a developmental state.

Indeed, much to consider. The concept of a developmental state, a term coined to describe the purpose-built state-led economic machine that was post-WWII Japan, is now applied with a crucial customisation across continental Africa and in southern Africa in particular.  In the book titled 20 Years of South African Democracy: So Where to Now? (published 2015), Parks Tau argues that,

“The developmental state must not just lead the full scope of social forces to realise economic growth but must also directly confront and redress the inequalities and social imbalances bequeathed by our colonial past. It is crucial to interrogate whether we are indeed putting in place such a purpose-driven, coherent state machine. As it stands, my answer to such an interrogation is that we are not – we are instead increasingly structuring and measuring ourselves as a bureaucratic state.”

To transition to a capable developmental state requires a range of radical measures which would put the state at the heart of the transformational process, most notably in a leadership role. So, let us look at what theories exist out there to guide us on our way to creating such a state.

Theories of the “developmental state” suggest that if we work from the early 1980s version, developed by Chalmers Johnson to describe a rising post-WWII Japan and then appropriated to describe the rise of the Asian tigers and the rapid development of Latin America in the early 2000s, we can describe the developmental or “hard” state as a purposeful instrument enabling a specific set of macroeconomic goals, cohering the various levers of state to achieve them (particularly in the more recent theories of Chang and Cummings). While not exhaustive, it provides a starting block on which to cut and shape a useful definition of the developmental state.

As for the South African definition and customisation, in the early to mid-2000s, a range of useful thinking emerged interpreting the developmental state in a southern African context (see, for example, Ikpe 2008). The major distinguishing features repurpose the developmental state not to respond purely to the goal of GDP growth and macroeconomic development, but specifically to remedy the imbalances wrought by the colonial and apartheid eras. This gives the developmental state a redistributive agenda, or at the very least a much more pronounced emphasis on uplifting the economically dispossessed and socially deprived.

The ANC, as the governing party, has enhanced this definition through the various iterations of the strategy and tactics document, assigning the state an aggressive and critical leadership role in realising the aspiration of the national democratic society – one that is truly non-racial, non-sexist, and prosperous.

In problematising the developmental state, the question posed by the working southern African definition is thus two-fold.

First, how can the state machinery be harnessed to a specific set of macroeconomic goals (and be equipped to mobilise and influence other non-state actors to follow suit) and second, what does such a process look like when the economic goal in question is combining economic growth with increasing equity?

In other words, have we worked towards a state machinery that can lead the wider social forces to realise these complex transformational goals, or are we constructing something quite different, which answers to different masters?

When we compare the developmental vs bureaucratic design in assessing what kind of state we are in the process of building over the last two decades, we must recognise that most state administrations remain hostages of the theorist Max Weber. The professional bureaucracy that emerged in the mid-19th century in Europe was idealised by Weber as a critical platform for the management of modern public affairs. It places emphasis – in designing organisational forms – on a tightly structured hierarchy to drive decision-making, clear lines of procedural controls and prudent stewardship of state resources.

I suspect that is a definition the South African auditor-general would still find quite pleasing. 

It honours important principles such as accountability and transparency and can do much to promote efficiency when it comes to well understood and predictable public tasks like collecting garbage every Monday. But it is a poor platform for innovation – and innovation is precisely what is required when taking on the complex transformational tasks we have assigned to the developmental state.

As Parks Tau wrote:

“This analysis by no means suggests the developmental state should tolerate inefficiency or lack of accountability – quite the opposite. In this sense, the bureaucratic state is not the antithesis of the developmental state. There is no reason, for a start, that both models cannot place an emphasis on strong, results-driven management and clear organisational accountability. But the emphasis and architecture of principles in the models are different enough to have profound consequences. To the extent we are transparent, accountable, well organised and prudent we have met the highest standards of the bureaucratic state.

“But the developmental state requires us to go much further, often into uncharted territory for the public sector. It requires a different kind of state organisation and a different kind of state practitioner. We can start by considering more precisely what we need this new kind of state organisation to do.”

For a start, we must ask the question: what is the mission of the developmental state? A useful place to begin is with the National Development Plan (NDP) chapter which addresses precisely this question.

The National Development Plan 2030 dedicates a full chapter to building a capable developmental state, but focuses narrowly on questions of capacity, professional bureaucracy and administrative efficiency. While useful, this does not cut to the heart of specifying how the developmental state should be organised and operate. The developmental state by definition cannot be goal-agnostic. The nine areas of defined intervention laid out by the NDP provide specific content to the goals of the state but need further interrogation, specifically in terms of what a capable developmental state would do to realise these goals. It is a fair description of what we expect from a bureaucratic state.

The political calibration of the developmental state therefore tells us we must be clear in our minds that, unlike the bureaucratic state, the developmental state is not a politically neutral institution. As Australian political scientist John Wanna noted in his influential 2010 work on active policymaking: 

“Every stage of the policy process is political (the design phase, the action phase, and the review phase)… By definition… policy is inherently political because governments are attempting to change circumstances that would otherwise prevail. Policy has a political purpose: it is aimed to effect outcomes in politically sanctioned directions.”

The capable developmental state must recognise and harness the productive impact of such a driving tension, building political calibration into its operations and making it the animating spirit with which it directs the symphony of resources and interest groups in the realisation of defined goals. Wanna goes on to point out that:

“Politics is not solely about decisive capacity or administrative capability but also about building relationships within and between institutions and organisations, with communities of interest and even between individuals… Policymaking does not stop when implementation starts.”

I thus argue that to be capable, the developmental state must recognise this dynamic and empower itself to be effective at such relationship building. The developmental imperative suggests a theoretical framework for the developmental state as disruptor and enabler.

In his book Development as Freedom, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen defines development as “enlarging people’s choices, capabilities and freedoms, so that they can live a long and healthy life, have access to knowledge, a decent standard of living, and participate in the life of their community”.

As Benjamin Barber has summarised the Sen position:

“Development should be judged not only on the basis of increases in average incomes, but on whether it creates the circumstances for people… to exercise their choices, capabilities and freedoms.”

“To drive development which meets this wider set of objectives, we must deepen our understanding of how to intervene productively in the political economies the state seeks to influence, and in so doing re-engineer distribution, taking into account the balance of forces from time to time”, states Tau.

As Thabo Mbeki declared to the world at his famed speech on historical injustice in Ottawa, Canada in 1978: “We must, by liberating ourselves, make our own history. Such a process by its nature imposes on the activist the necessity to plan and therefore requires the ability to measure cause and effect; the necessity to strike in correct directions and hence the requirement to distinguish between essence and phenomenon; the necessity to move millions of people as one man to actual victory and consequently the development of the skill of combining the necessary and the possible.”

The injustice Mbeki was then urging the liberation movement and the world at large to mobilise against began, as he detailed in said speech, with the economic disenfranchisement of the many. He drew, as many of us do, on the piercing Marxist argument that how the economics of a society is organised determines how the social structure of that society works – known as the base-superstructure argument. The economic base determines the social superstructure.

Tau concludes:

“Being radical in a progressive context is not about dogmatic adherence to established notions, however long-held those notions may be. Being radical is by nature disruptive, but also pragmatic. In the context of the massive socioeconomic changes we must enable to fulfil the transformative promises of our governing mandate, ‘being radical’ should mean aggressively departing from the status quo to enable, and – where necessary – force, rapid, sustainable and meaningful change to the conditions on the ground and the socioeconomic realities and systems that have produced these conditions.

“It means recognising that we must liberate our people to be economic agents, using those powers available to the developmental state – and those it might acquire through appropriate motivation and policy change – to engineer shifts in the balance of forces driving the economy, social conditions and the capabilities of the state itself. In enabling change in the base, in transforming the enabling conditions of economic life – promoting access to markets, access to space, access to the city – we will enable the changes in the social superstructure we so desperately need to see.

“In this paradigm, the key tasks that face the state going forward entail continuing to pursue policies that seek to transform apartheid relations of production, with emphasis on bettering the lives of the poor and the vulnerable. To accelerate local action for radical socioeconomic transformation requires intervention to fundamentally transform the economy, society and the state.”

One cannot agree more.  The state cannot claim to be developmental and not make specific and far-reaching choices on the nature of the transformation it seeks to effect. My argument here is that the state must act as both disruptor of dysfunctional (often oligopolistic) markets and modes of provision, and an enabler of the socioeconomic realities it seeks to bring into being. This cannot be done through direct action alone. The capable developmental state must lead as well as act, forging a social compact with the relevant parties and complementing such partnerships with its own actions in the form of strategically deployed regulation, incentives, fiscal policies and programmes. If we fail at these two very non-traditional roles of the state, South Africa will indeed drift further and further away from becoming a truly capable developmental state.

And the question will be, will it indeed be able to disrupt through enforcing and executing the stimulus plan as outlined by the president recently, or enable the continuation of the status quo? And will it simultaneously be able to fulfil its overall political mandate to the electorate going forward? DM


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