Like most of my overseas trips, my recent visit to South Africa resembled an intensive rolling seminar, as debates with brilliant Oxfam staff, partners and academics spilled over from conferences and meetings into cars and bars. Before it all recedes into the mists, I wanted to capture one of the recurring themes. The role of the South African state and the ANC.
Discussions on the developmental state are vibrant in South Africa. They are also very confusing. Often, the term is bandied about to describe anything a state should do to pursue development. But the term’s original meaning is much more specific, rooted in Chalmers Johnson’s attempt to explain the Japanese economic miracle of the 1960s and 70s. That includes a starring (and steering) role for a semi-autonomous technocracy, able to pursue a long term industrial upgrading project without succumbing to the short term demands of interest groups. Would anyone seriously compare that to what is currently happening in South Africa, where every day newspapers splash on the latest stories of chaos, intrigue and incompetence within the state machinery?
Actually, there is one part of the South African state machinery that is renowned for its efficiency and transparency – the South African Revenue Service (SARS, unfortunate acronym). One staffer at an Oxfam partner even said ‘if SARS was a party, I would vote for it’. Not often you hear that level of affection for the taxman.
But there are other points of comparison – Japan was certainly not free of corruption. More importantly, South Africa does have an activist state and that began long before the ANC. A questioner from the floor caused a stir at one seminar when he said ‘the closest South Africa has come to a developmental state was under apartheid’. The state provided for whites, and the non-white labour it required. I was struck by the amount of state housing for all ethnic groups – rows of identical brick two bed houses are dotted around the chaotic sprawl of self-built ‘informal settlements’.
That tradition of state provision continues under the ANC. Housing, education and health have improved, though there is an awfully long way to go. But this prompts heated debates on whether the South African style of provision encourages passivity and dependence. Anti-state types love the dependence narrative as it provides a perfect excuse for cuts, but not everyone who worries about it can be written off as a bloodthirsty fiscal hawk.
On housing for example, I was struck by the different approaches in some places in Latin America, where the state supports (rather than replaces) self-build, eg by providing an engineer to advise, or by building only one room and leaving spaces for shanty-town dwellers to add their own (as they inevitably do). Does that approach increase agency as well as produce more housing per dollar?
In the end, all conversations came back to the state and fate of the ANC. The party suffers from Beatles syndrome – applauded outside the country, but much less popular at home. The headlines are all about corruption, which seems widespread, but in many ways patronage is more of a problem than plain theft. Not only does that benefit ‘tenderpreneurs’ who use their connections to win state contracts, however incompetent the execution; it also leads to the wrong people in key jobs – ‘someone who has never been to school becoming a mayor’.
If the ANC is to rekindle its waning legitimacy, it has to tackle some big headaches. How to redistribute land without destroying agroexports? Could it nationalise parts of the mining sector, and if it doesn’t, does it risk a Zimbabwe style split between party and trade unions, as Cosatu loses patience?
Overall the level of political paralysis and growing inequality and unrest means the ‘ANC is tiptoeing on a land mine’. How might it all end? Random speculation over a beer Deep and thoughtful analysis suggested a few possibilities:
- Rising expectations both among the poor (growing protests over poor quality services) and the middle class (‘I’ve got my degree, now where’s my job?’) leads to a broad protest movement and some kind of Arab Spring type meltdown.
- Possibly linked to this, the party splits and South African politics becomes genuinely competitive and multi-party. All parties have to sharpen up, both in terms of corruption and competence, if they are to get elected.
- Alternatively, the lack of opposition removes any incentive for party discipline. Politics becomes a vehicle for grabbing the spoils of power, and leads to increasing infighting within the ANC and a slow slide into chaos and incompetence (call it Nigeria on a bad day).
- The ANC pulls back from the brink, finds new, dynamic leaders, and regains its appeal by attacking South Africa’s malaises of inequality, unemployment and poor administration.
Any other plausible scenarios?
The other posts from South Africa were on Women on Farms and the recent farmworkers’ strike; Brazil v South Africa on inequality; How to build local government accountability and How can South Africa promote citizenship?