When will President Cyril Ramaphosa act on ‘reform’? This has been one of the most enduring questions since he took office with the intention, supposedly, of correcting the country’s course and setting it on the road to governmental and economic recovery. 

The question arises (again) in view of remarks the President made to the African National Congress National Executive Committee over the past weekend. 

Conceding in his political overview that the country was in trouble – and, remarkably – that South Africa’s long-suffering people were angry at the (mis)conduct of the government and the (mis)management of the country, he once again punted coming reforms. These ‘could’ involve the ‘acceleration of structural reforms to stimulate competition, input costs and expand the country’s productive capacity’.

The president said that at any rate ‘The ANC government must be bolder and much more ambitious’. 

His comments reflect that intention. The Daily Maverick’s Ed Stoddard put it about as well as one might, with a headline describing the president’s remarks ‘a mishmash of stale buzzwords and unrealistic goals’.

He pointed to the incongruity of a state that has comprehensively failed to deliver on its economic mandate seeing the solution as according itself more authority to intervene ever more deeply as we ‘plunge down the rabbit hole of the “developmental state”, one of the favoured buzzwords of ANC mandarins’.

This is all correct. What is on the table is essentially for an incapacitated, dysfunctional state to solve problems that its own conduct bears no small responsibility in causing. Actually, go back one step: a party whose ideological fixations ensured that the state ended up in its current crisis wants to do more of the same to turn it into an instrument of development.

Depressing circularity

There is a depressing circularity in this, since we have been here before. The failure of governance has a great deal to do with the conscious, deliberate politicisation of the state – through measures such as cadre deployment – and the corresponding failure to build the sort of high-impact, meritocratic institutions that might have been useful to drive investment, growth and rising living standards. Brian Pottinger, former editor of the Sunday Times, put it magnificently in his 2008 work, The Mbeki Legacy

Hardly had the edifice been crafted than it began to crack, as it inevitably would. The reasons were simple. The ANC did not have the skills base to control its own party efficiently, let alone the nation. Secondly, the deployment of inexperienced party figures into public-service offices led to a diminution of the offices themselves… But the most serious effects of deployment were to be found when the one party in the (de facto) one-party state fractured in the run-up to the 2007 leadership elections. As the bureaucracy turned to counting who was pro-Mbeki and who was pro-Zuma, the already weakened professionalism of the public service took another nosedive. As directors-general hedged their bets by avoiding action on divisive policy issues, the very function of the public service became imperilled.

Fractious internal politics manifesting in the operations of the state… hardly something confined to the tail-end of Thabo Mbeki’s presidency, although it has by now been compounded by the extraordinary venality of the past decade.

Cadre deployment, meanwhile, is here to stay. President Ramaphosa made this clear before the Zondo Commission – a topic I have discussed in a previous column. He returned to this theme before the NEC meeting, warning his colleagues that they should brace for criticism as to the role and remit of the party’s deployment committee. These are ‘exaggerations’ and ‘misrepresentations’. Well, if they are – and I don’t accept that – the ANC has done a sterling job of presenting its programme as one of state capture. Its rationale for cadre deployment in the first place was to commandeer all ‘levers of power’ across society.  

Extension of party power 

In reality – and on the initiative’s own founding premise – it’s hard to believe that cadre deployment represents much more than the extension of party power into areas where it had no business. A feeder for its patronage system, in other words. The problem is not that its deployment committee may not have performed to the ethical standards set for it, but that it has no business existing in the first place.

And until this committee is done away with, the ‘capable state’ will be an illusion. The ANC will not be able to ‘deploy better’ on its way out of the mess it has created, and no amount of rhetorical invocation of the need for ethical public servants can be a substitute for a proper, meritocratic civil service.

Over on the policy front, there is at least ambition. Much is expected of the state, says the president. This echoes what he has previously said about our ‘recovery’ being led by the state. That’s quite an expectation for a state that couldn’t hold back a wave of rioting and looting two months ago, led by a party that failed to pay its taxes over a period of years – and is unable to pay its own employees.

But plans remain afoot for a constitutional amendment and matching legislation to widen the state’s latitude to confiscate property (or take it at ‘nil’ compensation – a concept the ANC’s employees are apparently familiar with). This is an investment killer, even if we are going to pretend this is just about ‘uncertainty’. 

Proposed revisions to the Employment Equity Bill will ‘empower’ the Minister of Employment and Labour to set ‘sectoral numerical targets’ (which seems rather like newspeak for quotas) that businesses will need to meet. Back in 2019, the minister, Thulas Nxesi, gave a crisp exposition of the government’s intentions in this respect: ‘We are going to be very hard on employers. We know some people will ask questions like “Why do we only begin being hard on employers when it is a time of crisis?” The reason that we focus on employment equity is because we need to address the inequality which is deeply rooted and all statistics show that as SA, we are doing very badly.’

‘Uncertain’ consequences 

One might point out that, in reality, employers tend to be an important part of the whole employment set-up, so being ‘very hard’ on them could have ‘uncertain’ consequences. (The same answer could be made to those people who are asking why the government waits until crises appear before being appropriately hard on those employers.) But more to the point, many millions of people in South Africa will be asking not whether the demographic breakdowns of firms’ employees match civil servants’ spreadsheets, but whether those employers have any employment for them. On that, we are doing not just badly, but catastrophically.

Stats SA recently reported that the official unemployment rate in the second quarter stood at 34.4% and the number of the unemployed at 7.8 million. In the first quarter of the year, the rate was at 32.6 and the corresponding number at 7.2 million. Not much sign of a recovery here – and if one takes into account those who have given up looking for work (not ‘officially’ unemployed) this all looks even more disastrous. Over the same period, the number of people in jobs fell by 54 000. These numbers are going in the wrong direction.

But the reform that might do something about this – professionalising the state, stepping back from EWC, loosening the hold of the labour regime, incentivising rather than threatening business – is simply not on the table. Pretending it is, always after some mandate horizon or other, is naïve. 

There is a tragic air of unreality about all this. Perhaps what we are witnessing is in fact the reform that the ANC’s worldview can conceive, and an ever more strident advance into those positions on which it has staked its claim in the past. It may be in the nature of ideologues to expect reality to conform to their preconceptions. Sadly, that means that any serious action to address our present crises is yet in the future.

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