DA-style "good governance" is not just a nice-to-have

Belinda Bozzoli on why uplifting the poor requires the rooting out of entrenched patron-client relationships

Why the DA’s “good governance” promises are fundamentally about poverty

It’s easy to think of “good governance” as a sort of middle-class thing, to do with surface issues (and, in the case of potholes, actual surfaces). A “nice-to-have”, maybe. A seemingly modest promise that, when compared to the ANC and EFF’s dramatic pledges – to take back the land, to get rid of “white monopoly capital”, to purge the country of racism and racists and so on – has a sort of namby-pamby feel to it. It lacks emotional resonance and is difficult to turn into sexy soundbites. It is “conservative”, boring and perhaps even “white”.

So enamoured are the promulgators of our public discourse with the tropes of revolution – of overturning, upturning, recasting, upending, capsizing and toppling – that we have little rhetorical room for thoughts about fixing, repairing, revamping, maintaining and sustaining. The idea is that only the overturning of things as they stand will be good enough to make a dent in the desperate poverty of our people, or the staggering inequalities we face. And that is understandable. However, spare a thought for the meaning of this for, say, the ordinary resident in an informal settlement in the poorest areas of Gauteng.

The promise of overturning, toppling and capsizing has an initial attraction for such a resident. How wonderful it would be to throw everything out and build it all anew. The millenarian dream of the magical day when the rich become poor, the poor become rich and we will all have land has a more than century-old history in colonial societies and at times resonates powerfully with the poorest citizens of our poorest areas. But a steely realism is also present in places such as informal settlements. Because over time it becomes clear to those that live there that nothing will change in this dramatic way and that these are false hopes born of despair.

The realists in such a situation usually see their solution in bargaining rather than revolution. They realise that they have the most meagre of resources with which to bargain, but that such bargaining is possible. And who do they bargain with? With the various institutions that have a foothold in their environment. These may be private institutions – the church, the burial society, the Stokvel. But more importantly many of them are public institutions – the school, the transport system, the clinic, the housing department, the planning department, the local council or social services and the police.

The residents have various things to offer in the bargain: their (infrequent) vote and political support; the little buying power they have; the modest institutional power they have through the capacity to organise active social and political groups – which grants them an important commodity - prestige; their participation in state institutions as per legal requirements (such as sitting on a school governing body and so on) and the threat of violent action. And what do the institutions with which they come into contact have to offer? – well it should be stability, order and ultimately a way out of poverty. A means of personal upliftment. An additional resource to gain some small advantage.

All the institutions which intersect with a poor informal settlement, or indeed any residential area, are intended to do just that. Education is meant to provide personal advancement to all; social services and the police to provide protection against penury and pillage; the clinic to provide better health, and so on. Together, working effectively, these institutions should position residents of informal settlements to stabilise their families, educate their children and advance their interests. They should assist in providing the “social glue” that cements families and communities and renders them more resilient. Effective institutions, not “overturning society”, are the sine qua non of tackling poverty.

But because of the chronic, pathological poor governance of the ANC government they do not. This is sometimes a case of absolute ineptitude from the top down. It is widely accepted that the understaffed and ineffective police cannot bring crime under control; or that most schools are unable to educate efficiently and are themselves unpleasant, often violent, places where teachers fail to teach and students fail to learn; or that there are few hospitals where health care is of an even vaguely acceptable standard. The government must bear the responsibilities for these failures directly. Its misallocation of resources, its uncaring attitude, its unwillingness to demand accountability – these are all at the ANC government’s door.

But there is a far more treacherous form of failure of governance at the grass roots level. In the case of a poverty-stricken informal settlement, for example, insidiously, the residents may themselves become infected by, and contribute to, the poison running through these institutions. How does this happen?

The important thing is that the institutions of government don’t just offer access to improvement. They come into the area bringing valuable goods – tenders, jobs and positions. And over time these “goods” cease to be mere by-products of the institution’s purpose, and start to determine the function of the institutions themselves. The lofty purposes for which they are originally designed – education, health, good roads, water, housing – the things that have the capacity to genuinely uplift the poor - are gradually destroyed. The by-products become the products.

Take a school for example. Here citizens are expected to participate not only as parents, but also as governing body members. The well-being and probity of the school partly rests in the hands of the governing body. But that body in many cases can become subject to vicious local bargaining and deal-making which corrupts it, as residents seek “position” and possibly access to funds and tenders through it. Once positions are won by particular individuals, often the leading men in the local area, who see their role as being to deliver resources such as jobs and tenders to the community. They become patrons, offering tangible goods to their clients. Thus is “clientelism” born.

In the case of education, this then poisons the governance of the school itself. The patron will offer his patronage to aspirant teachers, head teachers and other staff, turning appointments his way. Funding will be directed towards providing the economic goods controlled by the community “big men”, rather than the social and community goods which the institution is designed to produce.

Over time the institution becomes increasingly incapable of offering upliftment. Its goals shift dramatically, away from the value-driven goals which drive the creation of an institution such as a school or a hospital or a university, towards much more cynically-driven goals. For the residents will, where positions, jobs and tenders are concerned, sacrifice long term educational gain for their children for short term economic gain for themselves, their kin and their supporters. Such is the politics of extreme poverty and clientelism.

The same thing happens with most other institutions - clinics, hospitals, water authorities, local councils, universities and colleges. The interventions of government themselves become enmeshed in the local politics of bargaining, the “politics of the belly”, as Jean-Francois Bayart called it, which paralyses all institutional progress.

The lurking threat of violence cements the system. This is a real challenge to the state. Powerful interest groups within the settlement can mobilise their supporters and clients into violent action to defend their positions. Many informal settlement protests are rooted in this awful reality. Protestors may be mobilized to defend the turf of a local “patron” because they are his “clients”. Such protests are often disguised as simple demands by the community for their rights. And no doubt the absence of human rights is a profound motivating factor. But a complex set of internal power relations also invariably underpins them.

The patron, the “big man”, may find his patronage network under threat, and seek to defend it by portraying the challenger as corrupt, politically unacceptable, or evil. His supporters, already impossibly burdened by hardship, will join him, perhaps acting in their own perceived interests in that they believe the state will intervene to their advantage, whatever the more cynical motivation for the protest. Public violence is the one thing that draws the attention of the state, and is thus the go-to solution for unhappy patrons and a tempting one for the poorest in his circle.

Thus, the state cannot easily thwart big men once they are in place – and has little will to do so. Often this is because ANC members within the informal settlements are themselves the big men. They tend to wield power as the local patrons of the ruling party, and will cynically use that power to subvert the proper running of the institutions they inhabit, and turn them into resource-generating bodies.

Bad governance, therefore, is far from a middle-class issue concerning traffic lights and potholes, important as these are. It is a fundamentally anti-poor poison that infects our society right down to the very lowest levels. It allows a system such as this to entrench itself in thousands of different communities and local institutions without hindrance. The long-term interests of the people – in education, stability, the ability to plan the future and build on the present – are sacrificed in favour of the short-term interests of the local operators, the patrons who have turned and corrupted their local societies towards their own ends.

Can clientelism this deeply embedded ever be ended? The answer is – probably only imperfectly, and with great difficulty. This is unlikely ever to happen under the ANC, where the clientelist mindset goes right to the very top. Many ANC Members of Parliament themselves think of institutions primarily as resources for communities rather than as having their own unique purposes. Any other way of seeing them is often met with complete bewilderment. “Of course” a University is there in order to provide jobs for its staff, welfare for its students and tenders for the community around it, they will say. Any suggestion that priority be given to its goals of education and research over those of jobs, tenders and welfare is anathema. The state is there to provide patronage above all. No thought is given to the damage this does to the fundamental purposes of various institutions as they are raided for what “goods” they can deliver, rather than protected and nurtured for a higher purpose.

The example of the Western Cape indicates that while the tendency towards clientelism never goes away, it is possible to shift the ground substantially. But it takes time and unceasing effort and vigilance. Since 2009 the DA in the Western Cape has consistently focused on excellence in delivery, and has taken a resolutely outcomes-based approach. But it has taken nearly ten years to root out the most egregious examples of “the politics of the belly”. Schools are now focused on producing education, hospitals on producing health and roads departments on producing roads. This is very different from what happens under clientelism, where schools become producers of jobs, roads departments the producers of tenders, and hospitals – the jackpot institutions - the producers of jobs, vast amounts of stolen goods and tenders.

Under our current pathologically clientelist system, the real interests and needs of the poor are sidelined, their upliftment is halted and their difficult long-term road to greater social cohesion and a better life is blocked. Is “good governance” namby-pamby? I think not.

A version of this article first appeared on BusinessLive.