Monday, 24 November 2014 00:00

Fixing Our Institutions Should Be Of Paramount Urgency

One of the very difficult things to do in political commentary is try to explain to an outsider the rapid pace of institutional regression in South Africa, and why shoddy decisions are taken instead of sensible ones. This difficulty became glaring while I addressed an audience made up of academics, students and civil servants at the London School of Economics early this week.


Many in the audience understood that the world we live in is going through turbulent times, and every country faces unique challenges. What they find difficult to grasp is how a country that emerged with so much promise at apartheid’s end, and was seen as an oasis of hope for the rest of the African continent, could descend with such rapidity. More baffling to some is the fact that there is not so much of a counter-force to arrest the slide.


It is now a glaring reality even to outsiders that our institutional ensemble, meant to buttress democracy, has taken a heavy knock in a very short space of time. We have the growing dysfunction of parliament; the undermining of the role of the public protector by ANC MPs and leading figures; the destruction of value in our state-owned enterprises; the general tolerance of incompetence in the public service, with now R62.7bn of irregular expenditure; and the broken shards of a healthy and productive social dialogue that in previous times enabled government, labour and business to explore best policies on reforming the economy.


What is the core source of all this? One of the weaknesses of the early period of our transition is that we gave the new political elites a long leash. We believed in their professed commitment to rebuilding public service institutions; and that they would bring about qualitative change in the lives of ordinary citizens.


Despite the strong normative undertones of the ANC’s rhetoric, the ruling party’s character is, and has always been, largely backward and ill-suited to preside over a modern and sophisticated economy that faces complex socio-economic challenges. While there is still a coterie of leaders that are motivated by high ideals, they are overwhelmed by those who are driven by venality.


Another difficult question my LSE audience posed very sharply was just how it was possible in a “modern” country like South Africa for someone who faced 700 counts of corruption charges could, in the midst of all that, be elected as president and go on to win a second term. Not only that, ANC members in parliament and party bosses in Luthuli House, have taken it as their mission to defend the president at all cost, including exempting him from accounting before parliament. This pretty much sums up the predominantly backward impulse of the ANC.


There are of course long-term, and possibly, irreversible implications of this political culture. It reduces confidence in the economy, especially since political leadership and policy uncertainty sends powerful signals to economic agents. Second, damages to institutions could be long lasting, to the point where it becomes normal to pervert institutions for narrow political imperatives. Finally, restoring public trust in the political system could take much longer. For a political system to function with legitimacy it requires the trust of the public. When institutional credibility is threadbare, one of the ugly effects is the waning of participation in electoral processes.


The very intellectually taxing question I was asked was where will the new impulse of change most come from? The most tempting answer was to say we just needed to wait until things get worse, and the country will then be forced to move in only one direction - upwards.


The danger with this kind of thinking is that by the time the country hits rock bottom, it capacity for resilience would have been sapped dry. The African continent is full of rock-bottom examples that to this day are failing to bounce back, with the moment of its rise shifted some decades in the future, at which point the generation that lived to witness independence would have been long dead.


What is clear is that genuine optimism would have to be expressed in urgent efforts today to change our political culture. The struggle to define South Africa’s future would have to be fought at both political and the civic spheres. There are limits in pursuing just one avenue. Social consciousness and agency for change would need to find its roots in conceptions of individual responsibility, and forms of social mobilizations that would ultimately give expression to the kind of politics and institutions South Africa should have.


Qobo gave a public talk at the London School of Economics on the theme of 20 Years of South Africa’s Democracy, 24 November 2015.

This article was first published in the Business Day, 29 November 2014