Towards a capable state: a radical proposal

Mike Berger writes on how to arrest the steady drift towards total breakdown of SA

According to Gwen Ngwenya (Politicsweb 30 December) South Africa is a failed state with a functional private sector which serves to keep the country afloat sufficiently for those able to afford access to the private, parallel universe to lead reasonably comfortable lives.

As she puts it " The parallel state is in truth a form of migration. South Africans are escaping the official state; they live in a state run more by Curro, ADT, Netcare, and the taxi association than it is by any political party....").

While true in essence, Gwen's assessment needs fleshing out. One issue is whether a functional private sector can ultimately promote state competence and a partnership of 'equals' or whether it simply enables the parasitic state/private sector relationship to persist and worsen? But the most important question is what we as a country do about our failed state. Addressing that issue is the main thrust of this article

State incompetence and corruption was predicted in some quarters from the creation of South Africa as a unitary state in the 1990s. Such pessimistic premonitions were mainly ignored partly because of the racist assumptions which often accompanied (and still do) such views and, perhaps more importantly, because of the natural desire of South Africans to hope for the best. Otherwise, where was the motivation to keep up the arduous task of nation building to come from?

The reasons for pessimism lie in our history and, deeper down, on the various human natures which emerge under specific ecological (historical, demographic, sociological, economic etc) conditions.

Our country's story for the last three centuries has been one of often bloody intergroup struggles, dominance and marginalisation, shifting alliances of convenience, clashing cultures and vast economic inequalities. Certainly despite efforts by well-meaning people, in 1990 there was no deep-seated national identity available to hold the centre together and to create a nidus for social trust and solidarity to flourish. To a considerable extent that is still true and without such social trust the Constitution, admirable though it is, has not been able to serve as a secure bulwark against the entropic forces at work.

Without spelling out the details at least three major consequences followed the advent of full democracy:

Firstly, the deficit of skills amongst the now politically ascendant Black (African) community made them reliant on mainly White expertise derived ultimately from Western civilisation. To some extent this painful reality was further exacerbated by implicit assumptions of racial superiority within the white community.

But failure to accept that uncomfortable reality and to use white skills as the foundation for the development of the necessary capabilities within the broader community, plus a centralising ideological script led to disastrous racial quotas and cadre deployment and consequent failures of delivery, persistence of racial consciousness and corruption of various kinds.

Secondly, there is no serious common vision of what a future South Africa should look like. There was, of course, initially a great deal of rhetoric and sloganeering but, as clearly demonstrated by Myburgh (The Last Jacobins of Africa: The ANC and the making of modern South Africa), an enormous ideological gulf existed between the governing alliance and the chief opposition. That gulf persists but is not unbridgeable given sustained and detailed attention. Nevertheless, the ordinary political dynamics of democratic politics is currently deepening division rather than creating common ground.

Even within existing political groupings considerable differences exist. The ANC is ideologically divided, an alliance of convenience riven by factionalism and corruption. Even the DA bursts out in ideological eruptions periodically and surrounding these nodes are ethnic parties and political groupings existing mainly to satisfy the ambitions and agendas of their founders. This is not out of historical character for SA and certainly is to be found in other countries.

Thirdly, this political ecology provides extremely fertile soil for populists and opportunists. Throw in some imported ideologies and the environment becomes ever more favourable to nihilistic politics.

What happens in the political space does not stay there. It seeps out into the broader public sphere - and back in again. The social fabric decays and violence, distrust, lawlessness and insecurity dominates the public consciousness. Together with drugs, malnutrition, poor education and zero prospects it distorts and impoverishes the minds of succeeding generations. This process is on-going and undermines all efforts to build a law-abiding, responsible and socially conscious society.

In sum, these are the centrifugal forces of society and, at a certain point, become irreversible and consume the entire national space. Probably around 50% of our population are currently in the grip of such ecological conditions and a further 25% or so are within its gravitational pull.

This population has become a volatile and unproductive. Our most pressing need to is convert this marginalised class into the human capital the country requires to move out of its current stagnation and incremental decline.

At best this leaves only about a quarter or less of the national population who have been socialised mainly within First World (FW) conditions, the private sector largely, with its norms, expectations and ambitions. It is on this precarious fulcrum that the future of South Africa rests.

If this analysis is broadly correct we need to ask how we escape from the trap history has laid for us. The private sector cannot substitute for a capable State even though it can help sustain it temporarily. It does not possess the moral legitimacy or institutional architecture which are essential for creating a sustainable, inclusive State. But it can serve as a model for repairing a morally, economically and politically compromised State and as a source of expertise and economic power.

At this point it is useful to hit the pause button before continuing. There seems little point in simply recounting, yet again, the multiple ways in which the State has failed to meet the hopes and aspirations of the South African electorate over the past two and a half decades. But it is important to appreciate the fact that we still have some FW (or near-First World) capabilities: a free and vigorous media despite its imperfections, a liberal democratic Constitution which provides significant space for reform, some excellent schools and Universities and capable professionals of all stripes.

The South African community is still capable of throwing up outstanding individuals and innovators of vision and integrity. All too often such individuals are lost to overseas states   more open to their talents. Together with the natural resources of all kinds with which South Africa is blessed this provides a not inconsiderable platform for reform, if used correctly.

Jared Diamond in his most recent book, Upheaval, provides a comparative perspective on seven, very different countries which have, with varying degrees of success, encountered and traversed critical junctures in their recent history. It is enlightening reading .

Specifically, he lists 12 factors (pg. 50) which relate to outcomes. They are all important but for present purposes I mention the following:

- recognition of the crisis and acceptance of national responsibility for remedial action

using other nations as models coupled with honest self-appraisal

- identifying national core values and, finally,

-  delineating the issues most deserving of attention amongst which the development of a cohesive national identity looms large.

There is plenty of evidence that the wider South African population is well aware of the critical nature of South Africa's current predicament. But there is little evidence that this has fully penetrated into our political class who seem intent on ' carrying on' with policies which are either significantly responsible for the crisis in which we find ourselves or are insufficient to decisively alter our downward trajectory.

An alternative to the 'same old, same old' is to acknowledge the crisis and to work towards a radical change of direction. In our present form we're an extremely young nation, 25 years old give or take a year or two, and still sufficiently elastic to fashion an effective response. However, it is only realistic to predict considerable opposition to both the idea of a crisis and to any attempt to take systematic measures to define the various dimensions of the crisis and to work towards its alleviation.

My choice of words here is deliberate. There is no mention of a 'solution'. Solutions in politics are Utopian mirages. Political systems, especially in concert with the modern rapid rate of technological innovation, are constantly evolving and so is our understanding of the underlying dynamics. Politics requires on-going management which, at most, entails short-term solutions of limited extent focussed on specific problems.

So enough with the caveats for the moment; let's get to the point of this article. After a quarter of a century of experimentation and struggle we need to acknowledge that South African politics is in a state of stalemate accompanied by a steady drift towards breakdown. We have been propped up by the private sector but that does not constitute a viable alternative without an accompanying response from the State.

To remedy this we need a National Reset (Convention) which has multi-partisan support, full public participation and a host of supportive measures to minimise the risks and maximise the pay-off. An absolute prerequisite is to set out preliminary goals and an agenda. Here follow some suggestions arising out of our history and more recent experience:

1. First and foremost, to formulate a broad national vision which creates the essential space for full democratic politics and differing ideologies while also unambiguously committing to the general welfare of the entire population as a core national priority and value.

2. Secondly, to ensure that power is shared/alternated between the major political groupings. This is equivalent to anti-monopolistic measures within the corporate sector

3. Thirdly, to ensure that broad goals have teeth will necessarily include a review of our Constitution to identify where it requires a drastic rewrite and where it simply needs tweaking or can be left alone. Twenty-five years of experience and commentary should be adequate to justify such a move. It is tempting to treat the Constitution as a sacred object which sets a nation's destiny in stone, but it is far preferable to visualise it as an initial blueprint serving as a marker of intent but subject to adjustment with experience, new knowledge and changing circumstances.

4. And, as part of the exercise, to explore fraught but key issues such as the optimal degree of federalism and balancing minority views and rights against the need for efficient governance and adaptability.

Such a Convention should be seen as laying the foundations for political activity over the next quarter century or so, which is more than sufficient to set the country on a new trajectory. In fact the 25 years window may be too wide and other options considered for a future itinerary 0f regular reviews interspersed with more drastic resets.

The process must engage the entire population. Proper avenues for public participation will need to be provided and measures to prevent incitement and public disorder taken. Such an undertaking will require the utilisation of all media and related platforms to keep the population informed and to offer venues for discussion.

It will need to be supported by working groups to deal with details or unanticipated issues and South Africa should not hesitate to call on international as well as local specialists to assist at all stages. Publications like Upheaval are invaluable sources of inspiration and for what works and what pitfalls lie in wait for the unwary.

This process should not be seen as an end in itself but as the first step towards establishing a binding national identity in which all sectors of the population will be invested. It should further serve as an educational opportunity, a powerful exercise in democratic participation and a model for future exercises in national re-adjustment.

To end this preliminary set of proposals it is worthwhile addressing extremely briefly some of the objections that will be raised.

Clearly those comfortable with the status quo or who benefit from the present dysfunction will be reluctant to support change of any kind. Such people will insist that normal political processes are sufficient to take our country forward and that no crisis exists.

Another potential objection is that these proposals are too radical and will open a Pandora's box of cranky and opportunistic ideas which cannot be controlled. Undoubtedly there are risks to any relatively open-ended process. Thus explicit measures must be taken to minimise such outcomes. It is also possible that some will use the debates and misinformation to foment public unrest. Considerable precautions will need to be taken to ensure that the process is transparent and peaceful.

Every endeavour involves trade-offs between risks, costs and benefits. The downsides can be minimised by planning but the upsides can only be achieved by following through with the project. Considering the political inertia and vested interests which will need to be overcome visionary and adept leadership will be required to drive the reset.

The pandemic has highlighted the Governments failings but has also thrust ANC politicians into the global spotlight and challenged them to raise their performance. The DA in the Western Cape has provided us all, including the ANC Alliance, with a model of what a capable state can achieve. But it has also shown the massive hurdles facing South Africa before it can join the club of developed nations.

For some this will be an inspiration to further effort. Fortune favours the bold, not the reckless. The Western world in particular is in a state of fundamental transition. In the light of this reality formal accounting and resets may be essential everywhere, not just in South Africa.

But we can chose to shape our own destiny and show the way forward to others.

Mike Berger