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It’s time to ease out the kommissars in government and replace them with technocrats


Dr Michael Kahn is an independent policy adviser and honorary research fellow in the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, and a member of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science Policy.

If a Government of National Unity Lite is installed after 29 May 2024, its primary objective must be to build technocratic capability across all levels of government and the public sector.

This is the fourth in a series of columns on “What 10 words best describe our South Africa?” Read the first three here, here and here.

Back in the mid-1950s Brazilian economist Edmar Bacha coined the name “Belindia” to describe the inequities of his country, seeing Brazil as a mix of Belgium and India. This smart construct is well suited to describe us on the other side of the Atlantic. Perhaps the moniker “Calafrica” will tell it as it is. We, whose Gini coefficient is higher than Brazil’s ever was, are a mix of California, with its high Gini state, and Africa.

Calafrica is a place of extreme poverty, inequality and unemployment. So it was when the minerals-energy-financial services complex served the apartheid state, and so it is now as the same complex serves the democratic state.

From the early 1990s the private sector grasped the opportunities of deregulation and open markets, with South Africa gaining the accolade of “Gateway to Africa”.

We segued into the boom years of the commodity super cycle that raised all ships, so that our GDP growth reached 5.5% and everything seemed possible. Then came the Great Recession and that party was over.

A helicopter ride over Calafrica reveals the mining and mine dumps, and mineworker hostels of yore, with sprawling peri-urban informal settlements and strip development of the nouveau riche along the main roads of rural towns. 

This is the result of the “class” project of the Thabo Mbeki years, whose restricted benefits led to the palace coup of 2007. The Jacob Zuma administration, with its dominant kommissariat, then built on the workerism of the 1980s, with unionists gaining positions as ministers and directors-general in the key ministries of the economic cluster.

Wage inflation, with an ever-expanding bureaucracy, followed, with burgeoning inequality. For his part (ex?) chief spook Zuma captured the revenue service and the security cluster. Policing became selective. One might aver that the old police state became a policeless state (most of the time).

The Zuma and Ramaphosa administrations have this in common – both advance the vested interests of the workerists and their allies of the South African Communist party.

Yes, labour must enjoy rights. Yes, equal pay for equal work, and even the constitutional right to strike. But the downside of this workerist corporatism is the burdening of small business with pay hikes achieved through collective bargaining and consequent reluctance to hire.

The outcome was not so much a dictatorship of the proletariat as a dictatorship of the secretariat of the ANC NEC. Workers’ control was crushed by democratic centralism. And so it goes.

Beyond formal employment is the impoverished periphery of single-parent households, many under the rule of unelected chiefs and headmen. Hence exceptional unemployment with social unrest mitigated through the limited social safety net.

So, where to, or, might one quip, Soweto?

California is the fifth-largest economy in the world, accumulating wealth for an uber elite with its libertarian bent. Get out of the way, state. We are not that different in the way power is exercised. Our platform technologies – energy, rail, telecoms, pipelines, water – are monopolies which set prices as they please. That such overpricing through high wages and inflated procurement costs is dysfunctional, who cares?  The salariat and kommissariat cash in.

And those in the informal and criminal economies? They sing with Jimmy Cliff, “so as sure as the sun will shine, I’m gonna get my share now, what’s mine”, meaning this: As in the California of yore, take what you believe is yours.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

If the politically connected elite gain a 30% equity share through the front door, we the armed elite will get our share through the back door. Hence the taxi, transport, construction and security mafias. The policeless state enables this.

Now, here’s the thing. Other polities have faced similar, if not greater crises. Our reckoning is delayed since mineral royalties and income tax flow to the state once again. We swagger along, having gifted the corporate world with the King Principles, now in their fourth iteration.

And behold, Jimmy, a decade back the World Economic Forum ranked us among the top three (Hong Kong, Singapore, Mzansi) for auditing and company accounts. Oh, happy days. Now we are about 50th. Oops. Self-reporting has caught up with us, the former emperors with no clothes. Bare-bummed and exposed.   

After the 2009 election of President Zuma, the Mbeki team was scattered to the wind. Some to the National Planning Commission (Trevor Manuel), some to the Mistra think tank (Joel Netshitenze), and some to the wilderness where they offered belated mea culpas (Kader Asmal).  

Yet for all of its 400 pages of “will and must” bombast, the National Development Plan got it right. Problem was, and is, this is a toothless commission. We are not a Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, Japan, Taiwan or PRC, not even the corporatist Federal Republic of Germany or France, all with the ability to drive forward. The NDP recommends, government dithers. Interests prevail. Taxes flow in, wage settlements eat the golden goose, and municipalities pretend to offer services.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Who are we, we the People of South Africa? So many answers – healing the rifts isn’t easy

Perhaps the best object lesson is Vietnam from the 1990s onward when the will for market competition gradually eased out their kommissars and replaced them with technocrats. In effect the ANC cadre deployment strategy places party kommissars at executive and senior operational level, with disastrous consequences.

If – and this is the biggest if – a Government of National Unity Lite is installed after 29 May 2024, its primary objective must be to build technocratic capability across all levels of government and the public sector.

This demands that kommissars either upskill or move aside. Such transformation requires an administration that enjoys popular support and a commitment to dismantle Calafrica, a generational project if ever. Train one, train all.

(Calafrica pays homage to the chapter “Disparity” in Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words). DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Denise Smit says:

    Why do the readers not read this type of article. Thanks. Move it up so that readers can see it

  • D Rod says:

    Well spoken. Unfortunately, it is too little and too late. There is no way that komisars will upskill and become productive as there is little to no incentive for them to do so. They are all protected with labor law, cadres, small skeletons, etc. What is an ANC apartchik without government job? Nobody! Who would employ such a person? It will be impossible to get rid of them, as they would fight tooth and nail. Even if national unity government materializes (fingers and toes crossed), it will take another few decades to rectify the damage caused by ANC.

  • EK SÊ says:

    They’re not listening. Listening means a honest day’s work and that ain’t them.

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