The defeat of Thabo Mbeki's third term ambitions at Polokwane in December 2007 has brought with it some of the advantages of an alternation in government, even as the African National Congress has continued in power. A small, often incompetent, and increasingly venal clique had power ripped out of their hands. There has been a major change of personnel at the top, with some very able politicians appointed to cabinet. The ANC seems (for the moment) to be more open, democratic and responsive to its main constituency than it was during the Mbeki-era.
The question though is whether this change, necessary though it was, is sufficient. Will the ANC government be able to succeed, where it failed before, and what will happen if and when it realises that it can't? It is facing greater external challenges than before - negative growth and declining tax revenue. But many of South Africa's biggest problems are largely of its making.
From the mid-1990s onwards the ANC set out - as one - on an ambitious programme of ‘transforming' our state and parastatal institutions. The promise was that dowdy but functional moths would be turned into glittery butterflies. But, many institutions seem to have emerged from the denialist cocoon of the Mbeki-era more like caterpillars than anything else. They are ravenously hungry but no longer able to fly (literally, in the case of the air force.)
They are certainly not able to ‘transform' - at least not in a good way - the lives of poor South Africans. The dismal state of government run hospitals and schools is a matter of public record. Only recently the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, made the extraordinary acknowledgment that "The culture of teaching and learning has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared in most rural and township schools."
When one measures the early aspirations of the ANC against what has actually been achieved the shortfall has been extraordinary. An insight into why this has been the case is provided by a passage in Alexis de Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the Revolution. De Tocqueville wrote that the absolutist regime of pre-revolutionary France was as centralised and ambitious as the government that succeeded it. However, its "strongest intentions" tended to be "watered down in practice."
The reason for this, De Tocqueville noted, was that "the government, in its desire to make money from everything, had put most public positions up for sale, and had thus deprived itself of the ability to give them and take them away at will. One of its passions had thus greatly interfered with the realization of another: its greed had counterbalanced its ambition."
Something similar happened with the ANC after 1994. After 1996 the ANC set about centralising control over the levers of state power. The intention being that they could then be wielded to transform society. But here too, greed ended up counterbalancing ambition.
Even the best ANC cadres felt themselves entitled to state positions for which they possessed little of the requisite expertise. This particular fish rotted from both head and tail. Senior ANC politicians were deployed to head up state and parastatal institutions, while low level (ANC aligned) union officials in the public sector also grabbed what managerial positions they could. The scramble for posts was followed, a short while later, by an even more unseemly effort to profit from state and parastatal tenders. The end result has been an enfeebled state, unable to deliver basic services efficiently let alone ‘transform' or control society.
Such incapacity has not been an entirely bad thing. Along with an independent judiciary it has provided some kind of check against the ANC's more totalitarian ambitions. As De Tocqueville wrote of the Old Regime: Its' "harmful and bizarre system of public employment functioned as a kind of political guarantee against the omnipotence of the central power. It was like an irregular and badly constructed dike which divided the central power's strength and dissipated its shock."
Jacob Zuma and his ministers have signalled their, no doubt sincere, desire to improve on the ANC's past performance. It is not clear though how his government plans to do this. There seem to be three basic responses currently jockeying for position.
One is to press on with the same old policies but with greater determination. "I will work harder" - as Boxer, the old workhorse, used to say in Animal Farm. Thus, the law and the constitution will be altered to allow for greater central control and direction. And the ANC will press on with cadre deployment, but demand greater accountability.
A second is to try and obliterate the status quo with a sudden and dramatic change. Such millenarianism has recently found expression in the Youth League's call for the nationalisation of the mines and the banks. The more unhinged proposals for a National Health Insurance system - made by the same individuals and groups responsible for destroying our public hospitals - may reflect a similar mentality.
The third and more rational approach is to try and correct past mistakes. The Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan has noted that now that South Africa is borrowing to pay for its spending, it can no longer afford its former profligacy. As he stated recently: "We have to prune unnecessary spending and reprioritise our plans going forward. We must be uncompromising about our approach in attacking wastage and corruption."
What is desperately needed, in the current circumstances, is the implementation of a strict ‘merit system' at all levels of public service appointments, the allocation of state tenders according to the criteria of price and technical capability only, and the re-establishment of independent watchdog institutions (of one kind or another) to root out any residual nepotism and corruption in government.
It is unlikely that the ANC could or would ever push through such policies. They run completely against party ideology, and would threaten powerful and entrenched interests in the Tripartite Alliance. The best one can hope for is that the rational tendencies in the ANC will continue to keep the more venal and ideological ones in check.
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