Integrity matters at the top of critical institutions, but by itself it is not enough; competence and experience also matter a great deal. We can see this at Eskom, where a turnaround is unlikely to be led by a board and management that may have integrity but lack the experience or expertise to put this massive institution on the right path. Appointment processes that pay too little attention to skill, competence and experience and overemphasise the goals of transformation need urgently to be revisited, as do the underlying assumptions that guide them.
SA’s internal market is too small to be the basis for rapid industrial growth, so if we are to grow faster it must be by offering goods and services to the world’s 7-billion consumers. The president has talked about the need to grow our export industries, especially tourism, but it is hard to understand why so little progress has been made on reforming the visa system. Nor is it clear why no-one wants to talk seriously about the potential of light manufacturing, which helped many Asian and other countries industrialise and move millions out of poverty.
There is a global competition for talent. SA needs to get in the game. We must liberalise our immigration regime and actively recruit foreign skills — both these actions could be undertaken speedily and affordably with political will and leadership. We must also get serious about fixing our skills pipeline.
Ten years of state capture and widespread corruption has left government institutions battered and weakened. There has been a spectacular failure of state-led development. Many state-owned enterprises, most national departments of government, provinces and municipalities function exceptionally poorly, if at all. This is a critical point, and one too many of us forget when we are thinking about reform. So unless reformers have a serious plan for improving public policy formulation and implementation, it’s perfectly sensible to question the workability of their proposals.
SA is in grave difficulties. Cleaning up the state is an urgent necessity, but it is not a sufficient condition for getting us out of trouble. Political leadership and courage is needed now to get the process of economic reform under way. The country needs a new national narrative, one that recognises our many crises and accurately and honestly diagnoses the reasons we are in such a deep hole. Effective reform will require bold leadership and an ability to explain to South Africans that we cannot continue as we are. There is no free lunch.
Important choices are required in SA and trade-offs will need to be made. Getting out of trouble will require the recasting of the debate about national priorities. In the process the ANC is going to have to slaughter a few of its ideological holy cows.
• Bernstein is head of the Centre for Development and Enterprise.