Last week I spent an afternoon in the eNCA studio in Hyde Park participating in a rather unwieldy studio discussion on whether the private sector’s willingness to help the government is a patriotic move, or whether there are ulterior motives. That, at least, was the topic in the invitation.

I must admit, the topic itself spoke volumes. Why, I wonder, is it necessary for a country facing the degree of breakdown apparent in South Africa to question the motives of those offering to help? The answer probably has to do with the lack of trust that we in this country have towards one another, and towards most of our institutions. We are suspicious of ill-intent, because that is so much a part of how we experience things in our society. And perhaps it’s because there is a moralistic strain in our public life that craves selflessness and altruism, again, perhaps because we perceive so little of it.

eNCA was particularly interested in recent remarks by former president Thabo Mbeki, who had in turn referred to a previous analysis by IRR CEO Dr John Endres. This can be found here. Dr Endres argues that the decline in administrative capacity has turned most of our public institutions into a major hindrance to South Africa’s success, a ‘detrimental state’. As this atrophy continues, a more apt descriptor will be an ‘emasculated state’, which simply lacks the capacity to make its presence felt.

Since life must go on, any number of alternatives to state provision have emerged. The most obvious of these have been the private security industry, which has grown exponentially since the 1990s to safeguard households and businesses from the dangers of an increasingly lawless society – a major driver of our social distrust – and the formalised private-sector provision of health and education. Those latter two are, incidentally, no longer restricted to the more affluent; even relatively modestly remunerated civil servants have access to private care through the state medical aid, while there has been a rapid expansion of low-fee private schools catering for parents seeking alternatives to a sub-par state system.

Sponsoring stopgap solutions

We’re seeing even more of this. Businesses have been sponsoring stopgap (and sometimes rather more enduring) solutions to maintain the flow of societal life, such as the pointsmen hired by OUTsurance to direct traffic, or the maintenance of roads and verges by any number of businesses. (It says something about the state of the country that corporations want to brand their pothole repairs…)

In July, over a hundred CEOs scaled this up with a formal pledge to assist the government in overcoming the challenges confronting South Africa ‘through strategic partnerships and focused interventions’. And business executives have been active in trying to mend fences with the United States, as South Africa’s geopolitical positioning strained an indispensable economic relationship.

Mbeki, however, took a suspicious view of this. Yes, the vacuum created by a failing state would naturally be filled by some other actors capable of doing so, but in his view, this was not to be welcomed. Rather, this was ‘counter-revolution’, the old paranoia-infused chestnut that was so much a part of the political lexicon when he was at the helm of his party.

‘Counter-revolution,’ the former president opined, ‘is no innocent and pleasant game, but, in our case, a direct threat to our democratic state and the welfare and wellbeing of millions of our people.’

What he appeared to be getting at was that the intrusion of the private sector into the areas that the state had reserved for itself was undermining the latter’s dominant role (its hegemony, to use another hackneyed phrase), and its ability to bend society to its will, with the ANC in charge of it all. This has certainly been the ANC’s understanding of these relationships.

An element of this concern, one which featured prominently in the studio discussion, was that the effective privatisation of governance would place essential services beyond the reach of South Africa’s poor, who, by most estimates, include well over half the population.

Persistence of capitalism

For a number of attendees, the narrative was that the ANC had sold out to business, accepted the persistence of capitalism and allowed itself to be ‘captured’. The result was an incapacitated state, whose functions venal capitalist interests – whether of the ‘parasitic’ Gupta variety or the more respectable ‘White Monopoly Capital’ variety – could then appropriate for profit.

For myself, this called to mind those heady, almost idealistic debates that were current in the early 1990s: what is the appropriate role of the state in a post-transition society? Should it be a minimalist thing, withdrawing from management of the economy and leaving the tasks of actual service provision to the private sector? Or would an ever-present, intrusive arrangement be in order, something to drive an aggressive programme of ‘transformation’? Important matters for debate, but one often conducted with an air of abstraction about it. These exchanges were often conducted in ideological rather than pragmatic terms.

The ANC may have gone the interventionist route – the late Steve Tshwete once declared that there would be state interference in ‘every sphere’ – but the number of choices it made inevitably undermined its ability to do so. Not only did it lack the necessary administrative skills (a situation which has arguably grown worse over the years, given the state of the party now), but it opted for political control over technical competence. When the late Maria Rantho said it was ‘imperative’ to dispense with merit as a priority in appointments, she was taken at her word.

The results are to be seen in those potholes (those with and without corporate branding), dysfunctional sewage plants, plundered rail tracks and an unreliable power supply. Former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke put it poignantly when he observed: ‘We all knew that we could not change the trajectory of inequality and poverty without a competent developmental state. We paid continuous lip service to the kind of state and governance we deserved and did little or nothing about it. Look at us now.’

Indeed, look at us now.

No longer an ideological discussion

The reality is that this is no longer an ideological discussion. Whatever its intentions, the South African state by and large hasn’t the capacity to meet its mandate.

Nor is there much indication that the political powers-that-be accept what needs to change. A government that persists with its own state capture agenda (AKA cadre deployment) or persists in a raft of implausible policy drives – think Expropriation Without Compensation, preferential procurement, race-based employment policy and the National Health Insurance – is one that has either refused to face the gravity of the crisis or is simply unable to do so.

South Africa is fortunate that it has a private sector that has been able to step into this breach. It is equally fortunate that it can count on a range of ideologically diverse civil society groups. Think here of work undertaken on municipal infrastructure (yes, those potholes) by AfriForum, or disaster relief from Gift of the Givers.

This is, however, not ideal. Where a relatively benign option is not available, frustrated communities will turn to the less benign for their salvation. They do already: vigilante groups, taxi bosses, gangs. The incapacity of the state poses another dilemma. Where legitimate actors are formally brought on board – as in contracting services to commercial suppliers – the risk exists that unscrupulous operators can profit. A competent state is necessary to make such arrangements work properly – but making the state competent is wholly within the purview of those who staff and oversee it.

And to the question of whether businesses are operating from patriotism or self-interest, well, it’s a mixed picture. Businesspeople are human beings and no doubt some feel that pitching in is a moral obligation.

Spot opportunities

Businesspeople, if they’re any good, will also spot opportunities in the realities at hand – and if that means that some profit is to be gained from doing what our authorities and our tax money are transparently failing to do, then so be it.

However, intervention by business likely owes more to the necessity of trying to keep the country ticking over, a necessity shared by all – except, perhaps, those who have created this situation.

Counter-revolution? Well, ‘revolutionary’ thinking has brought us to this point. If ‘counter-revolution’ takes us away from it, that is to be welcomed. And this is quite irrespective of the motives behind those ‘counter-revolutionaries’.

[Image: David Peterson from Pixabay]

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Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.