Fresh strategic thinking is needed to get the country back on track.
South Africa is a country with enormous potential. It was always going to be a hard place to govern after centuries of discrimination and 48 years of apartheid, but there is nothing inevitable about where we are today: a country in deep trouble, full of trepidation for the year ahead; a country of multiplying entangled and accelerating crises that significantly degrade our prospects.
Too many people want to jump to solutions before they have properly diagnosed the real causes of South Africa’s sorry state. President Cyril Ramaphosa blames “nine wasted years” of Jacob Zuma’s presidency, state capture and corruption. That is a part of the explanation, but totally inadequate.
Why are we in this terrible situation?
An honest diagnosis needs to dig deeper than the president wants to go and must include his five years as president. We need to look at bad ideas translated into bad policies; a failed strategy and its terrible consequences; and the absence of a credible theory of how to change South Africa, resulting in a lack of priorities. The result? A country in a downward spiral driven by crises that are never resolved, but to which the same “solutions” are endlessly applied.
First, five really bad ideas:
• The belief in a “developmental state” to direct the economy and transform society, when the reality is that the state is corrupt and collapsing, unable to achieve the most basic things. Yet, even as local government disintegrates and state-owned companies collapse, the ruling party clings to the idea of a developmental state that can lead and deliver.
• Cadre deployment. Instead of competence, the important criterion for most senior government jobs is to be a party loyalist. There are small pockets of remaining capacity. But the deliberate strategy of putting people in charge of complex institutions in a sophisticated economy solely because they are loyal to the party (and worse), provides an important explanation for our troubles.
• The failure within the ruling elite to fully appreciate or often understand the power of markets, entrepreneurs and firms to fundamentally change the country and empower millions. Endless clichés and rote statements about investment seldom, if ever, translate into policies to facilitate expansion of private activity. More often they are accompanied by actions that prevent growth.
• The devotion to state monopoly companies providing critical public goods. Even in the face of gross failure (Eskom, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, Transnet…) the government remains convinced that these dinosaurs are essential for development. In fact, poor governance and the absence of competition mean they are a large and growing drain on growth.
• The fifth bad idea is the belief that South Africa can be a high-wage, high-skill economy. We have dismally failed to educate and train our workforce but insist on pushing up wages, leading to less and less employment. South Africa needs jobs for the workers we have, not the highly skilled workforce we wish we had.
A second cause of our troubles is bad strategy.
Fundamental to Ramaphosa’s presidency has been a commitment to ANC unity above all. This is an impossible ambition. As ANC veteran Mavuso Msimang says: “The unity the president so desires cannot be forged with venal thieves.”
ANC unity as a paramount strategy has had awful consequences. The president knew there were traitors in the security establishment since 2018 but did nothing about this. Even after July 2021’s attempted insurrection and his own panel report, he has kept compromised people in his government, and no-one has been charged with wrongdoing or subjected to disciplinary action. His cabinet is full of people who cannot do their jobs or have vested interests in a corrupt status quo. The result is a president who says one thing and does another, who says he wants reform but allows anti-reformers, the corrupt or incompetent to stay in power. And when someone in a position of authority does want to uproot corruption and is subjected to accusations of “treason” and attempts on his life as a result, the president says nothing.
The third cause of our decline is what the Chinese would call “the two failures”.
The Ramaphosa presidency has been characterised by an inability to choose real priorities. He wants growth but he also wants many other things that undermine this claimed priority. There is no set of guiding ideas about how to change South Africa — how to rebuild a country with 50% living in poverty, appalling unemployment, stagnant growth and failing cities. Or how to deliver with a flailing state. Or how to mobilise the capacity that does exist in our society (for example business, NGOs). Forget the platitudes and sometimes weird ideas, what is the theory of social change underpinning this presidency? There is none.
The second failure is an inability to adapt. Good leaders “learn by doing”, but with remarkably few exceptions speech after speech tells us how badly the country is doing and then proposes more of the same failed approaches. Where is the promised evidence-based approach to policy?
The ANC and its president are stuck. They have failed to modernise their movement into a party of government or to build a leadership core infused with common values, urgency and the experience or expertise to govern effectively and deliver.
South Africa is today in such deep trouble because of a failure of leadership, bad policies, no real priorities and a flawed obsession with unity in the ANC to the point that the national interest barely features beyond empty rhetoric.
The consequences are devastating. As it faces accelerating crises, the country is led by a government without credibility, that has no leadership, little capacity and no plausible ideas on how to get out of the mess. A cabinet reshuffle (long overdue) will disappoint — the pool of party talent is too shallow.
Ramaphosa has been in office five years. He presented himself as a reformer and many people were desperate to believe this. They were ready to separate the man from the party of which he has been a leader and member for more than three decades. They believed in the possibility that the chair of the ANC deployment committee at the height of state capture would do things differently and abandon long-standing views and practices. Things have not worked out that way at all. And, even as this optimistic view proved to be an illusion, many have found it difficult to abandon.
To be fair, some reforms have taken place on his watch. But they have been far too few, implemented at glacial speed; his whole approach is nowhere near bold enough. Reuel Khoza called the president “irresolute”, arguing: “If you lack courage, particularly the courage of your own convictions, then you must not step onto the leadership plate. In my humble observation, the current president lacks courage.”
Sadly, the notion of the current president as a reformer is no longer credible, in fact it is a mirage.
The time is long overdue for everyone — citizens, business, organisations, leaders across the board — to think differently and strategically if we are to get the country back on track.
* Bernstein is head of the Centre for Development and Enterprise.
Article published by the Sunday Times