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Looking east — we need more committed technocrats in government


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

One of the most significant policy decisions China made after 1978 was to appoint technocrats to key executive and public service positions. They were all Communist Party cadres, but were technically skilled and competent and paved the way for the country to become the powerhouse of our times.

In about six weeks from now, wearing my global political economy cap, I will be focusing quite seriously on the “retreat of Western liberalism” and its institutions, and the rise of “the East” with particular emphasis on the actual, mainly technical, basis of the conclusion that The Future is Asian. This does not mean I will stop writing my columns; wherever I may be in the world, I would still need to put food on the table…

Anyway, while the East Asian Tigers contributed to the growth and expansion of economic activity in the region during the 1980s (stunted briefly and disastrously by the East Asian crisis of 1997), and helped developing countries pave a pathway from the periphery, China’s political economic power and influence may, rightfully, be identified as the main force behind the early 21st-century global shift from West to East.

China’s expansion cannot be sufficiently stressed and South Africa may do well to emulate the early policy decisions that gave full impetus to Chinese growth. Since China started its reforms in 1978, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth has averaged around 10% a year. On the back of this, more than 800 million people were lifted out of poverty, with significant improvements in access to health, education and other services over the same period. It should be said that there remain important areas where interventions are required. I remain convinced that South Africa was on the right path towards emulating some of this expansion until 2007…

Bring on the technocrats

Nonetheless, one of the most significant policy decisions that China made from 1978, notably in the 1980s, was to appoint technocrats to key executive and public service positions. They were all cadres deployed by the Communist Party, but they were technically skilled and competent. This laid the basis for China’s expansion, without losing sight of social, distributional and administrative justice.

Given the immensity of the scope and span of infrastructure breakdown and failing institutions and agencies across South Africa’s political economic landscape, we may want to consider whether it is time to appoint technocrats to the Cabinet for at least a period of, say, 10 years, and replace very many of the public servants with qualified technocrats.

Starting in the early 1980s, China “restaffed” government at all levels. Within five or six years, China retired more than 1.3 million public servants who had sat in positions for decades purely because they were members of the ruling elite. While these “retirements” were under way, China employed close to 500,000 university-educated cadres, very many of whom were engineers. This new intake was the so-called technocrats.

Perhaps because of envy, or out of genuine concern, Western liberal scholars (I remember, in particular, Robert Putnam, formerly of Harvard University in the US) described China as a “technocracy” that was the antithesis of democracy.

Western Marxists criticised this alleged “technocracy” as a shill for capitalist control of workers. Libertarians believed it placed restrictions on individual freedom. Relativists and historicists were critical of scientific principles and technological methods on the basis that they were unable to adapt to human society. There were also general concerns that “technocracy” turned humans into machines.

Never mind the discontents

It is doubtful that the current or any foreseeable government would employ technocrats in place of people who know the words and melodies that typically accompany political gatherings. I’m probably being cheeky, but since 2007, knowing the words and music to Awuleth’ Umshini Wami was sufficient to get you in like Flynn. But seriously, the opposition to appointing technocrats and not cadres who share political solidarities will be mainly ideological. This notwithstanding, it may be useful to reflect on China’s early achievements after 1978, when the country opened up and expanded its political economy on the back of technocratic excellence.

Evidence shows that China’s meteoric rise over the past four decades is one of the most outstanding examples of the gains that can be had from opening an economy. It stands in stark contrast to the murmurs of “decoupling” from the global political economy among more populist politicians beholden to ideological masters. This applies, of course, to those who can and do actually read and not simply repeat catchphrases by revolutionaries who died many decades ago…

Nonetheless, China’s opening ushered in a shift from a largely agrarian society to arguably being the world’s most powerful industrial driving force. Along the way, there have been marked increases in productivity and wages, much of which accounted for lifting an estimated 800 million people out of poverty.

A vital policy decision the Chinese made was to place technocrats across key positions in the executive and the public service. This decision was different from the way technocrats in government are dismissed — mainly by Western commentators and scholars — as “heartless” and unconcerned with issues of justice, equitable distribution and a wider spread of wellbeing and prosperity.

Taking a cue from one of my favourite economists, Thorstein Veblen, I believe that technocrats can be deployed to address South Africa’s most critical failures, especially in infrastructure and service delivery. It can be argued that a progressive form of technocracy — with its focus on expanding overall and inclusive wealth, prosperity and wellbeing driven by increased productivity and exchange — would set South Africa on a more stable path.

As in China, South Africa’s social and political economic contexts would have to remain in focus. Should this be achieved, technocracy can be a more progressive and fairer distribution of opportunity, wealth and prosperity than is a hierarchical system dominated by a governing elite that sometimes seems to have run out of ideas, and is simply re-enacting games learnt in the kiddies’ pool.

Technocratic excellence can also keep at bay any growing tribalism, the type of ethnonationalism, scapegoating of “non-Africans” and “non-South Africans” that we have seen from the populists in the country. It may, then, be a better way to stall the rise and spread (and the appeal) of authoritarianism and the disregard for technical expertise.

By ignoring the value that technocrats can bring to government, as opposed to recycling loyal comrades, Jeff Radebe is touted as the next deputy president, Zweli Mkhize is making a play for the presidency of the ANC and people like former eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede just will not go away.

One of the first things the Chinese did in the early 1980s was to get rid of the old comrades who had occupied offices since the early 1950s — these were the “retirements” referred to above — and replace them with highly skilled people who were the “technocrats” that set that country on its path to being the political economic powerhouse that it became at the turn of the century.

What may work in South Africa is a cadre of technocrats who have the power and influence to shape policy based on their technical knowledge while remaining committed to technological progress. These technocrats should not lose sight of social problems, distributive or social justice and, as argued above, their appointment should not be seen as an end in itself, but as a means to a fairer distribution of opportunity, expanding overall, and inclusive wealth, prosperity and wellbeing — on the back of increased productivity and exchange.

Alas, none of this will happen in our lifetime, and it may never happen in South Africa. The big irony is that South Africa’s left will share the views of Western liberal elites who decry technocracy as anti-democratic. DM



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  • Good article BUT….. Only one side of a many-sided story is told.

    What about the “One Child Policy”? I have been to China many times and at least one educated guy was adamant that that is what got China out of poverty. Sure it was very heavy-handed but with a liberalisation of that policy now there has not been much enthusiasm for multiple child families in China.

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