We are worse off now than in the Zuma era

Theuns Eloff writes on how SA's national decline has accelerated under Ramaphosa

Between 1998 and 2016 I often delivered a “state of the nation” address to audiences mostly made up of business people and organisations. I therefore would describe South Africa’s “balance sheet”, pointing out assets and liabilities. In addition, I would assess the country’s political, economic and socio-economic situation (the latter including development issues), and give each of these three a score out of ten.

Towards the end of the Zuma era, I stopped these evaluations and starting speaking about possible scenarios. Until the end of the Mbeki-era the political situation normally scored between 7 and 8 out of ten. The economy fared slightly worse, with 6 to 7 out of ten. The socio-economic situation never got more than 5 out of ten. By 2016 the political situation was at 5, and the other two at 4 out of ten (and heading downwards).

The country’s political assets during that period always included the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the democratic dispensation and political stability. Later the development of a stronger opposition and the re-emergence of strong civil society organisations were also considered to be assets.

On the economic terrain there were good policy frameworks, economic growth and employment growth (at least until 2008), as well as fiscal and monetary discipline, lower inflation and trade expansion. The socio-economic assets included the initial drive for improved housing, electricity provision, infrastructure, water and sewage, primary health care and education. Good interpersonal relations at grass roots level was also part of our assets.

But after the Zuma government came into power, the liabilities steadily started growing. Since 2011, it was clear that the Constitution and the rule of law were under pressure. The low levels of management capacity and efficiency in the public service, especially at local government level, were real concerns. Linked to the cadre employment and wrongly implemented affirmative action of the Zuma regime, this inevitably led to incompetence and corruption at almost all levels of government.

Unemployment grew, and the low levels of productivity and a rigid labour law system worsened it. Already in 2011 (almost ten years ago) it was clear that service delivery by local government was getting worse - including roads, water, electricity and healthcare services, with little or no maintenance taking place. Education, especially basic education, was in a parlous state. A growing bureaucracy and a “rule culture” were developed to hide or save poor management and incompetence -something that reached a climax during the lockdown. Already in that period it was pointed out that we might have an “imploding” or failed state. In the last few years, this toxic mixture was worsened by worsening race relations and polarisation between political elites.

What score would South Africa’s political, economic and socio-economic situation get today? To determine this, one would have to rise above the present Covid-19 crisis and its consequences, without ignoring the fault lines laid bare by the pandemic and the government’s managing of it. It must be noted that the fact that we have now entered level 2 of the lockdown, does not change the core arguments in this evaluation.

We still have assets in our political situation, such as the Constitution, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary (with the exception of matters of racial transformation). But all of these assets are increasingly under pressure. And they all exist outside of the ANC government, and almost in spite of it.

Two liabilities on the political terrain have formed a refrain since the late 1990’s: corruption and incompetence. Since the Mandela government commentators have warned against the dangers of corruption and were concerned about the low skills levels in the public service. Notwithstanding this, and despite the wide spread corruption through state capture of the Zuptas, it took the plundering of funds meant for the victims of Covid-19 and for the poor, to break the camel’s back of public opinion against the ANC government.

Due to Ace Magashule’s infamous words “Show me an ANC leader who has not done business with the state”, it has become (once again) clear to most South Africans that corruption is not only endemic at all levels of the ANC government, but that most ANC members and the organisation as a whole are inherently corrupt.

Their own leader called them “hyenas that feed”. Corruption and incompetence are not the same, but they feed off each other. Poor management and the lack of proper systems make it easier for corruption to occur. And often incompetents are appointed exactly with the aim to milk the system for themselves and others - aptly described by yet another South African creation: “Covidpreneurs”. And with so many incompetents and corrupt members in the SAPS and the NPA, it is almost impossible to fight corruption effectively. Even a commentator who has historically aligned himself with the ANC (Ismail Lagardien), recently wrote that cadre deployment was one of the main reasons for incompetence and corruption in the public service and that it must stop.

The lowest score I had given the Zuma government in the past was 5 out of 10. I am afraid that the present government, based on the above and a host of other reasons, does not deserve more than 4 out of 10.

With regard to the economic situation, it has always fared worse than the political and this remains the case. The Zuma government’s past score of 4 out of 10 does not match the present parlous state of the economy. Before lockdown the economy was already on its knees. After months of economic strangulation, it is probably on its back.

The argument in defence of the long and stringent lockdown - that one can pick up an economy, but that you cannot revive a dead person - displays a shocking and indefensible lack of knowledge by politicians of how businesses (small and large) function. I am convinced that (with very few exceptions) not one cabinet minister or director-general knows and understands how economic value chains work and how quickly they can be destroyed.

For instance, the alcohol ban could easily cause the glass manufacturing sector (as an earlier part of its value chain) to be irrevocably and irreparably damaged. This was clearly not considered when the general ban on the sales of alcohol was (twice) instated. According to estimates, unemployment has increased by ten percentage points to close to 40%. Our economic situation can be described by four words: The money is gone. Because as a country and a government we spend more than we earn (through taxes) every month. The trust between business and NGO sector, and the government, is at an all time low.

The economic situation in South Africa therefore deserves a mark of 2 out of 10.

As far as the socio-economic situation goes, it always scored lower than either the political or the economic situation. On the one hand, it would always have taken longer to address such long term issues as housing, electricity provision, education, crime prevention, land reform and infrastructure development.

On the other hand, the progress that had been made under the Mandela and Mbeki governments ran into the sand when the Zupta-era started. I remember giving the Zuma government a magnanimous 4 out of 10 in 2016. However, if one consider the impact of impact of Zupta corruption and incompetence on service delivery, education, infrastructure, it is clear that almost all progress has petrified.

The sad story of local government officials and politicians, whose incompetence, poor management and corruption are highlighted and made public annually by the Auditor General (with almost no consequences, apart from some of the worst municipalities being placed under administration by an equally incompetent provincial government), is a microcosm of what is happening in South Africa today.

In my 2016 book, “Turning Point”, I still tried to prove that we only have a partially failing state (and not a failed one), but in 2020 I must concede that South Africa is now largely a failed state, with parts merely failing and only a small portion working. The failure of local government is experienced by ordinary citizens as badly as Eskom and its load shedding. It is on record that Eskom is where it is because of corruption, state capture and incompetence (despite the noble efforts of the present management).

Our socio-economic situation then barely deserves a mark of 2 out of 10.

Some might ask: but what about President Ramaphosa? You are surely not writing him off, too? Since 2018, I have written numerous articles in which I have pleaded that he should be given an opportunity to fulfil his very difficult task. I have given acknowledgement where I thought it was due and have also criticised where I thought he deserved that.

In the last few months I have, unfortunately, come to the conclusion that, although I still give him the benefit of the doubt and pray that he succeeds, he will not be able to turn the ANC around and unite it behind him.

The power and influence of the corrupt (symbolised by Ace Magashule), the stubborn ones (“halstarriges” in Afrikaans describes it better) (symbolised by Dlamini-Zuma) and the incompetents (graphically symbolised by Lindiwe Zulu), are just too strong.

Ramaphosa’s style of consensus-seeking cannot work because it is abused by his opponents to prevent decisions or to force them down to the lowest common denominator (as has happened with the closure of the schools). Apparently a different leadership style is not available or possible. And if Cyril Ramaphosa cannot turn the ANC around, he cannot turn the country around.

Therefore, dear reader: the unfortunate conclusion is that the state of the nation in the middle of 2020 and the Covid pandemic, is ironically worse than it was at the height of the architect and builder of state capture, Jacob Zuma: between 2 and 4 out of 10.

It may be true that this situation was partially inherited by President Ramaphosa, but it is expected of a leader to be there when the hour “cometh”. The hour is here, but the leader not…

Theuns Eloff is an independent commentator.

This article first appeared in Afrikaans on Netwerk24.com.