The problem with South Africa

James Myburgh says our society is rewarding the wrong qualities

JOHANNESBURG -South Africa, as a country, is slowly sliding backwards. This is reflected in the poor state of services, the potholed roads, filthy rivers and pervasive corruption within the state. There would be hope for the future if school education was getting better, but the government matric results continue to be dismal.

If there is any progress at all, it is that these problems are now being recognized and acknowledged. However, knowing what to do about them - overwhelming as they are - is another matter. The good news, in a way, is that many of our problems have a common origin. The bad news is that unless it is identified and uprooted all the good intentions in the world will come to nought.

At the core of many of our problems today is the ethos that ‘transformation' has allowed to spread and take hold across our society.

Under Mbeki's leadership the ANC set about overturning the ‘racial imbalances' that were, it was claimed, a ‘legacy of colonialism and apartheid.' The analysis of the South African condition, on which the programme of transformation was based, drew heavily upon more generalised Leftist and African nationalist ideology of the 1960s and 1970s.

By the late 1990s nationalisation was no longer a viable option for the ANC. But many of the other policies adopted ran along the old lines. Power was centralised as the party sought to extend its influence through state, parastatal and civil society institutions. Equality would be achieved essentially by the party taking control of everything: from appointments in the civil service, parastatals and schools, to the allocation of tenders, and the granting of mining and prospecting licenses. They would then be reallocated from the privileged white minority to a deprived black majority.

In order to trace the effects of these polices it is necessary to understand the corrosive effects of discrimination, political patronage and the crushing of the merit system, particularly within the state.

The primary effect has been the misallocation and squandering of human capital. Some individuals have been over-promoted, or promoted too soon, many cadres deployed into positions despite lacking the requisite ability to do the work. Others, with precious technical expertise, have had to look outside the state, or the country, to realise their aspirations.

Racial discrimination in the labour market under apartheid had similar consequences. In 1964 the economist W.H. Hutt wrote that ‘civilised labour' restraints had, on the one hand, "forced the employment of unsuitable people in the protected fields" and, on the other, led to an "enormous waste of potential talent of the non-Whites."

Thus, during the Mbeki-era individuals with no aptitude for the job were elevated into high positions; while excellent candidates were excluded because they belonged to the wrong race, wrong union, wrong party or wrong faction. Such appointments and non-appointments have been hugely costly and often disastrous.

But the damage to society does not just stop at artificially generated skills shortages or the mismanagement and bad decision making of inappropriate appointees across all levels of the state.

The secondary effects need to be understood as well. Pervasive discrimination - whether of the racial or political kind - can, as Hutt observed, destroy the incentives for self-improvement and efficiency among both the beneficiaries and the victims. Why work hard and apply yourself if, whatever you do, you are going to be promoted anyway (or not at all)?

These policies can generate a deep sense of entitlement amongst those profiting from them, while breeding disaffection among all those excluded. They thus end up demoralising both classes -in the one sense of the word or the other.

In the early years of ANC rule it was white, mostly Afrikaans, functionaries who bore the brunt of discrimination in the state. But increasingly political patronage has squeezed out merit based opportunities of advancement for everyone. As one anonymous teacher, quoted in a govt report, complained: "Many educators in my school are not motivated to work. There are no incentives to motivate educators to work. The merit system stopped and salary progression was put on hold and as a result educators are doing the bare minimum that is required of them."

Finally, there are the tertiary effects of these policies. The ANC's appointment of cadres to all top positions, and the allocation of tenders to cronies, sets an example to broader society. It is political connectedness which is rewarded, not honesty, hard work, education and knowledge. In this way the attributes on which successful societies are built have become steadily devalued within broader society.

Just as open and competitive entry into the civil service will produce a positive effect on the general education of a country, a patronage and race-based system at the top is likely to undermine it. As Hutt noted of apartheid, the closing off of potential avenues for advancement, "may destroy the motive for investment in human capital." If there is little or no reward for doing so, it can become pointless for individuals "to devote their energies and limited incomes" to training and the acquisition of skills.

In a sense Julius Malema is the embodiment of our problem. From a young age his formidable talents were directed wholly towards politics, not to acquiring the sort of education on which productive economic activity depends. In turn his current power, and the great prosperity that seems to accrue to it, sends out a message to contemporary youth that his is an example to be emulated.

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