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Of his weekly letters so far, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Monday instalment on the need to build a capable state was probably the most apposite. Those that would take issue with his thesis would undoubtedly fit into a telephone booth.
As an editor of one of our national dailies pointed out this week, the debate on a capable developmental state “has been identified so many times before” but, contrary to his assertion, it has not always been “without any meaningful action”.
An honest biography of the post-apartheid’s state formation project would undoubtedly conclude that from 1994, the construction of a capable state was a work in progress. It was slow but nonetheless incremental and registered steady advances until it was recklessly thrown into the (supposedly) revolutionary inferno that was the ANC Polokwane 2007 national conference.
Thereafter, and especially after 2009, it was a southern downward spiral, itself also slow but steady, nevertheless.
It is worth recalling that while the ANC did not inherit a failed state in 1994, much of the current policy, legislative and institutional framework, as with the institutions themselves, were established post 1994.
Certainly, the three apex institutions of government are completely new: the institution of the presidency, the Constitutional Court and parliament’s component of the National Council of Provinces.
Consider, also, the cluster system of government, institutions of the criminal justice system, the presidential working groups, the Izimbizo outreach programmes to the population, the foreign policy architecture, the poverty war room, then led by the deputy president, the policy coordination process, the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative of South Africa and a myriad other institutions and processes.
No one can argue, with any reasonable measure of justice, that these structural and programmatic efforts were not taking us towards a capable state. They were, and imagine if they were not taken, out of voyage for as long as a decade. South Africa would not have solved her problems, but we would certainly not be where we are.
One advances this argument for no reason other than the imperative for an accurate appraisal of our problems, which should inspire avoidance of past mistakes.
The head-butting of a president in September 2008 – euphemistically referred to as a “recall” – put paid to a smooth handover between the 2004-2009 and the 2009-2014 administrations, a process which was already under way following agreement of the formation of ANC and government handover committees.
This attaches with several tendentious issues which we dare not poly-fill, lest we, in the editor’s words, fail to take “any meaningful action” to construct the desperately needed capable and developmental state.
Space does not permit an exhaustive discussion, but one of the issues we must earnestly confront is the tendency for vested interests in and outside political parties to self-serve rather than advance the national interest.
It would be naive to suggest that it is possible, at least at certain stages in the life of a developing country, for total insulation of the state from party-political self-interest. But great are the problems when party-political interests eclipse everything, the national interest included.
We must also question perspectives and arguments which, though seemingly rational and logical, are sometimes, if not often, oblivious of actual practice.
One of them is the usual refrain that democracies need strong institutions in order to deliver dividends to the citizenry. Our recent experience, as is no doubt the case in other jurisdictions, is that politics asphyxiates much as it advances institutions. Vital as they are, institutions are not a sufficient saviour and enabler of democracy.
Rather, it is politics working harmoniously or conspiring against institutions to which we must turn for answers to successes, challenges and failures. It was politics that built the institutions of democracy post 1994; politics it was that put many of them on their knees, visited untold misery on some of the men and women who staffed them; and it is politics that is once again attempting, albeit not without political contests, to lift them back on their feet.
So, a capable state cannot be constructed without, first and foremost, an ethical political leadership that understands and is committed to the national interest. Additional to a reliable ethical rectitude, the leadership must itself also be capable and, above all, appreciate the things that it does not know.
It must understand the imperative for and futility – sometimes condescending nature – of madefor-media outputs, be decisive and able to read historic moments without whose seizure opportunities can sometimes return after long intervals.
Another crucial intangible is that such a leadership should invest in the nation’s thinking processes as a way of arming the citizenry to defend itself against trespasses from state and non-state actors alike.
Building on existing accountability mechanisms is, of course, crucial. But sustained consequence management decisions, especially if they are publicly communicated to the nation, would achieve a great deal more than necessary well-intentioned public statements of intent.
Consider, for instance, if there were to be consequences for the litany of failures which the auditor-general reports on each year.
Such measures are, one must stress, a function of politics – politics will ensure that the indolent and the downright inept are held to account or left to wreck further havoc.
And it is not to the practice of so-called cadre deployment to which we must turn to understand the problem, but a type of cavalier politics which is completely unconcerned about the public and national interest.
Now for a reluctant diversion. Last week, one received a particularly vituperative feedback from a highly placed figure who questioned one’s decision to critique the ANC January 8 statement delivered by President Ramaphosa in Kimberley a fortnight ago.
After a lengthy attempt to engage, it became evident that there was no point in the effort and we both politely agreed to disagree. The encounter reminded one of the words of the late Senegalese author and filmmaker, Ousmane Sembène: “A society progresses by asking questions of itself, so I want to be an artist who questions his people.”
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