South Africa: DEVELOPMENTAL or CHARITY state?

How can South Africa move forward, economically and socially? Should we spend our money on fish or fishing rods, or can we do both? Can our civil service do the jobs that need doing? Can we generate Argus Cycle Tour levels of commitment to development? PROFESSOR BEN TUROK, ANC MP and editor of New Agenda, speaking on ‘Construction of a developmental state in South Africa’, set the cat among the pigeons.

Who makes policy, asked Turok. Parliament? Cabinet? The public service? Well, all of them. But none of us should surrender the policy space to somebody ‘up there’ who makes it for us. Simply administering policy does not make a good public servant.

This is Turok’s developmental state checklist:
  • Strong, coordinated central government
  • Decisive economic policy
  • Promotion of the real economy, not financial ‘fizz’
  • Creation of jobs in the formal sector and for the marginalised
  • Overcoming apartheid dualism in the eco-nomy
  • A Chinese-style, risk-taking private sector
  • Civil society participation, ensuring a developmental, not an autocratic state.

And who are the major economic decision-makers in South Africa? The President? The Cabinet? The ANC? Business? In a workshop straw poll, business came out tops. But the real decision-maker is the Cabinet, he said. Why had he asked the question? Because, if it is not clear who the major economic policy-makers are, there is no hope of achieving a developmental state.

He believes South Africa is still trapped in the colonial legacy of mass poverty and economic stagnation. Politicians want to deal with this, but too often they take their eyes off the ball. The market, an imperfect and distorted instrument, will not do it all for us. The sausage-machine of ‘delivery, delivery, delivery’ is not enough: As former president Thabo Mbeki said in 2008, ‘Know that the poor are knocking at the gate. If this gate does not open … the masses will break [it] down’.

South Africa is becoming a charity rather than a developmental state, said Turok. We have been thinking too much about consumption and not enough about investment.

Economic stability, at the heart of our economic policies, takes us only so far: development means investment, growth, and the ability to manage these processes. But coordination and innovation are lacking, and without these a developmental state is impossible, Turok argued.

Utilisation of resources

Hold on, said respondent Wiseman Magasela of the Department of Social Welfare. If we want to construct a developmental state it is not just a question of what the ANC or government thinks should happen, but of the public services’ know-how. So we must peer inside government and see what it can do: an interventionist state depends on capacity.

Remember the administrative legacy of the ex-homelands and the former Republic. We rummage in the pre-1994 ragbag for materials to build the developmental state. We must break out of this – what can we learn from education in Zimbabwe and Lesotho, for instance? Come to that, what are the lessons from Scandinavia and elsewhere? We need content-specific expertise in the civil service. This is a precondition for building a developmental state, otherwise it will remain a dream, Magasela said.

The economy is the priority, we are told. But South Africa has a history of shocking neglect of welfare. What happens to ordinary people if the emphasis becomes overwhelmingly economic? Can one imagine a developmental state without a parallel emphasis on social policies? Welfare must accompany economic investment, otherwise we have a Thatcherite state, undermining welfare and privileging the rich.

Ben Turok and Wiseman Magasela both acknowledged that South Africa has limited resources – financial and intellectual. The question is, how should they be used?

Invest in productive industries in the ex-homelands, where the worst poverty is to be found, said one participant, using state resources to encourage private investment that will contribute to both economic growth and welfare.

Let us not be timid, said another: going cap in hand to private investors has its limits. Mobilise government’s powers of enforcement and regulation, and do not be distracted by the clamouring and sometimes contradictory voices of NGOs and others.

Know that the poor are knocking at the gate. If this gate does not open... the masses will break [it] down - Former president Thabo Mbeki, 2008

That’s all well and good, but what about government’s capacity to deliver? This participant reminded the workshop that the civil service has too few skilled specialists. How do we fix the machine while it is on? When will we admit we do not have the means to get to where we want to go?

Another participant asked whether the ruling party takes problems of implementation seriously enough. Indeed, specific expertise is only part of the problem: technical experts are promoted to managerial roles and are often inadequate and, worst of all, indecisive. Good managers must be developed in the public service.

It goes even further, said another. Does a developmental state require men and women with an ideology, a ‘line of march’, that goes beyond their personal professionalism?

If it does, how will this happen? South Africa has inherited a hotchpotch of administrators – can they be welded into the sort of civil service that is required?

Yes, Professor Turok replied, the developmental state needs an ideology of service. Why should the spirit of commitment that, for example, characterises the annual Argus Cycle Tour, a massive undertaking largely run on voluntary labour, not mobilise and invigorate the civil service? Questions of technical capacity are important, but without commitment little can be done. 

The way forward

There have been errors. Teacher training, nursing and vocational colleges were closed or neglected. SETAs are only now beginning to operate effectively. Since 1994 other considerations have displaced developmental thinking in the ANC. So, yes, the old and infirm must have pensions, but the priority must be to generate work.

We cannot build without welfare, Turok said, but it is a question of balance. Do existing grants really improve investment? Can they not in many cases be reoriented towards small-scale investment and production rather than consumption?

This would require careful planning and research, made more difficult by the elimination of much research capacity in state enterprises now seen as profit-making entities. In rural areas we need to ask: who fixes roofs and cars? We should invest in such knots of potential development.

Why should there not be vocational training centres in all villages? Social grants, said Turok, should go only to the most desperate. We should instead invest in training and job creation. Certainly, civil society can be quarrelsome, even obstructive and, although the frustrations of building a developmental state can lead to demands for authoritarian solutions, they should be resisted. And politics is complex and resistant to simple solutions: the ANC initiates policy, but Cabinet is independent, with different forces at play.

Wiseman Magasela had the last word. The fundamental question, he said, is: what do social grants buy us? Able-bodied people do not get them, and grants that may seem to be oriented towards consumption in fact go, in part, towards development in the form of paying for education. In any case, the amounts are minuscule as compared to spending by the privileged classes of South Africa. The choice between social or economic development is a false one. They are a continuum. To put it starkly, the death of children in hospitals is, or ought to be, as important as economic growth.