Government by throwing your weight around
Political studies departments at our universities will soon be able to introduce a new course for first-year students: "Government by throwing your weight around".
The most recent example of this phenomenon was the threat by the Air Services Licensing Council, a statutory body, to ground Comair, a privately-owned airline competing with South African Airways on domestic and regional flights. The reason given was that Comair, which operates a British Airways franchise in South Africa, had exceeded the 25% limit for foreign shareholding.
Regulatory bodies should of course have the power to suspend the licences of airlines in the interests of safety. To threaten to do so because of a dispute over shareholding is an extraordinary abuse of power that recklessly disregards the inconvenience and costs that its action would inflict on thousands of passengers.
Confronted with the threat of an interdict in the courts, the licensing council wisely beat what the Department of Transport described as a "strategic retreat".
The council's behaviour is reminiscent of that of the minister of sport, Fikile Mbalula, who last month barred local rugby, cricket, and athletics bodies from hosting international events on the grounds that they had failed to meet "transformation" objectives.
The Tourism Business Council of South Africa said the ban would hurt tourism - still struggling to recover from when the minister of home affairs, Malusi Gigaba, played the petty despot over visas with similar disregard for the inconvenience inflicted upon travellers and their families.
Wherever you look ministers seem to be doing this. The Cabinet deputed three of them to bully banks that withdrew facilities from one of the Gupta companies, although only the mineral resources minister, Mosenbezi Zwane, grabbed this opportunity. Unable to do anything about the country's major unemployment problem, the labour minister, Mildred Oliphant, is threatening to crack down on companies failing to comply with employment equity demands.
The Department of Trade and Industry is processing criminal charges against 30 companies for supposed violations of black economic empowerment requirements. The minister of economic affairs routinely meddles in mergers by imposing conditions that have nothing to do with the merits of competition issues.
Unable to fix failing public hospitals, the minister of health, Aaron Motsoaledi, regularly blows his top against the private health sector. Earlier this month he threatened "massive legislative" intervention. This will no doubt confer on him extensive discretionary powers.
Not to be outdone, the minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande is arming himself with discretionary powers that include the power to intervene in universities if he has "reason to believe" his intervention is necessary. Legislation in the pipeline will give regulators in the financial sector comprehensive law-making powers. Further opportunities for regulators and bureaucrats to throw their weight around will be the result.
Comair was able to protect its rights by going to court. But this option is in practice open to only a small minority of people. Hawkers who lose the little they have when local authorities or the police lay waste to their livelihoods are seldom able to do so.
The government seems to thrive on throwing its weight around. This phenomenon is on the increase at the same time as effective government is on the wane. An estimated R1 billion in damage to schools and universities says it all. So does the fact that weak government has allowed a militant trade union to capture large chunks of the schooling system, and even to sell the jobs of school principals.
Members of Parliament and parliamentary security officials now also behave like bully boys. The African National Congress threatened to make the country ungovernable unless it came to power. The Economic Freedom Fighters, offspring of the ANC, have simply extended that principle to Parliament itself. Recent spectacles there are but a metaphor for the whole country.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the South African Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.