We must build a capable state that works for the poor, writes WESLEY SEALE
The battle for the soul of our government is being pursued. As radical economic transformation is developed and takes root within the ANC, the signs of tension between the old and the new become glaringly evident.
The people of South Africa want change. They want to know that their children will have a brighter future. Yet those whose duty it is to serve the nation through public administration continue to be beholden to the ways of old.
The debate of whether South Africa should have gone to war and completely destroyed the state and rebuild it from scratch does hold currency, especially now 23 years into democracy when the structure of the economy, in particular, has not changed. While no one wishes to advocate for war, political commentators would certainly question whether a revolution took place in South Africa when hardly nothing of the state structure has changed.
Reflecting on the revolution, or non-revolution, in Egypt, during the so-called Arab Spring, Paul Marfleet in his book ‘Egypt: Contested Revolution’, questions whether there really was a revolution when much of the Egyptian state from before the fall of Hosni Mubarak remains intact today. Egyptians, Marfleet contends, have just replaced a dictator with another; both having been propped up by the military.
When one studies the institutions of the South African state, one soon realises that, like the Egyptian case, not much has changed since the fall of Apartheid. The state, be it the municipality, province or even national department continues to work for you if you are part of the privileged minority. Today that privileged minority is not based on race but rather on class; even though class is very much linked to race in South Africa.
For the vast majority of Black South Africans, in particular Africans and Coloureds, as is evident by statistics provided by Statistics South Africa, the state is not working for them. They are not able to access or receive the necessary support from the state. Whereas White people and the handful of Blacks who have made it into the upper classes have a less troublesome experience of the state.
The tragedy in all of this is that the state is neglecting the people who need it the most. Compounded with this is the role played by unelected bureaucrats in making transformation work in South Africa or not. The public service is certainly one area of the state where a thorough discussion and implementation of transformation has not occurred post-Apartheid.
We have certainly replaced White with Black faces but we have not necessarily changed the institutional culture of the public service. As a result, Batho Pele, People First, principles are more likely to be practiced in areas where the wealthy and Whites stay than in clinics, police stations and welfare offices in our townships.
The recent 12 unanswered calls by Deputy-Minister Bongani Mkongi to the Langa Police Station is one such example. Had he called Mowbray or Rondebosch police station the response would have been almost immediate even though both stations would have mostly Black police personnel manning the charge office.
As a result, the areas or people that need the services and goods of the state the most are the ones often neglected. Poor teaching practices by teachers often occur in poor areas with poor schools. Municipal services such as decent sanitation and the provision of electricity and water are frequently worse in areas that are worse off. No matter how long the granny has been waiting at the clinic to get a medication, when its lunch time, its lunch time. The examples abound.
Transformation or even decolonisation of the state must therefore occur within our public sector. How is it that whenever Black public servants deliver poor service it is often in Black communities?
As a result, this lack of transformation and working for the privileged few only results in a public service that is fundamentally anti-poor. They are not just anti-Black but they remain anti-poor and anti-Black. Two examples currently exist in our national narrative where these anti-poor and anti-Black tendencies persist in our public service.
The first is the blacklash from bureaucrats, who are accountable to the people’s representatives, in respect of the rumoured fees proposal by President Jacob Zuma. The proposal, pushed by an acquaintance of the president’s daughter, is attributed to the president. While many would welcome the proposal, it has apparently led to the resignation of the head of budgeting in the National Treasury, Michael Sachs.
The notion that university education should be free to poor, Black students is anathema to Sachs and his ilk and therefore they never took the proposals seriously or even considered on their own where cuts could be made in order to facilitate free education. If bureaucrats such as Sachs believed in the principle of free university education for poor Black students they would have devised a plan of their own. Instead, they resign in protest because a public good is de-commodified.
The second example of these anti-poor and therefore anti-Black tendencies within our public service is the coolness with which the National Heath Insurance scheme has been met and now shelved. Reports from the Davis Tax Commission suggest that there is no money for the complete roll-out of the NHI which will in the main benefit the poor. While the Commission does propose some increases in tax to fund the scheme, it is almost certain that bureaucrats from the old dispensation will frown upon this increase in tax.
Yet this is the double tragedy. It is not bureaucrats from the old dispensation that persist with this anti-poor attitude rather it is cadres deployed who have adopted Apartheid attitudes in their pursuance of public service. Instead of ensuring that they work to propose policies and programs that will uplift our people, they have maintained the status quo and done nothing different than what the apartheid government did. If the Boers did it that way then it must be the right way, is the thinking.
A cabinet minister once relayed how she had a chalk and cheese experience of attending an ANC lekgotla one week and then, as is custom, the Cabinet lekgotla following next week. She indicated that while the ANC lekgotla informed by ANC policy the discussions of branches and the personal experiences of NEC leaders on the ground dealt with the issues of the people, the Cabinet lekgotla was often bogged down with powerpoint platitudes for plans.
This chalk and cheese experience reiterates the need to ensure that capable cadres are deployed in order to build a capable state. Yet even more so, they cannot only be capable rather our experience thus far has been that it is only through being cadres that transformation in and through the state will be effected. It must be a capable state that works for the poor.
Seale teaches Politics at Rhodes University and is a PhD Candidate at Beijing University