UNMANDATED SPACE-Volume 1 – Issue 1, 2021


~Imvo Zabangathunywanga~

Volume 1 – Issue 1, 2021
5 March 2021

Welcome to the very first issue of Unmandated Space – Imvo Zabangathunywanga.

In this space, we hope to raise issues of national importance by raising the necessary questions of our times. Unmandated Space is a space for individual expressions. Because we all enjoy intellectual freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, the views expressed in this space do not reflect the collective views of the Associates, unless otherwise stated. Occasionally, the space will admit guest writers too. The requirement is that guest writers must have a progressive orientation.

On 25 February 2021, The Polisee Space was officially introduced to the public of South Africa. In my humble view, this was an important milestone in the South African think-tank industry and the broader public life. We believe so because; South Africa and Africa needs more think-tanks and more progressive ideas for the developmental, renewal and unity project.

As a ‘new kid in the block’, The Polisee Space hopes to use its intellectual resources to raise the important questions of our times whilst helping clients to drive results and improve outcomes.

The task to rethink our public life as well as the public policies necessary to move South Africa to the next level of development, is very urgent and daunting. Why is it that Africa remains the least developed region of the world when we have freer societies, large natural endowments and requisite human capital?

In South Africa today, if a Martian would descend from Mars, he or she would be forgiven to think that the biggest problem facing South Africa today, is corruption and state capture. Sure, these are indeed important issues and require solutions. But is it not equally important to ask the question: what is the relationship between corruption and development or lack thereof? Should we assume that when we arrest all the culprits (businesspeople and politicians), the problem of corruption will suddenly disappear?

Writing about the subject of corruption recently, Prof Steven Friedman has this to say:

‘When businesses realised (presumably in the early years of transition) they would need black business partners, the only candidates they knew were the political activists with whom they negotiated. So, it was to them that they offered the shares and seats on boards which were essential if business was to adapt to new political realities.

The seeds of post-1994 corruption were, therefore, deeply planted in the country’s past. But corruption since then is also a symptom of another way in which the past was carried over into what was meant to be a new society. Before 1994, the groups which controlled the state used it to ensure that they controlled the economy too.’

This suggests that after arresting all the culprits, we must return to the stubborn questions of economic development, social mobility, and inclusivity. Friedman is correct in grounding the discussion back to economic history and the political economy. In other words, corruption is a public policy concern for all sectors of society, and this implies that solutions too, must come from all of us. It is quite tempting to focus on the low hanging fruits whilst ignoring the structural basis of the issue.  

State capture for example, animates a lot of people because of the high drama and spectacle of politicians and businesspeople hanging by a thread. The funny thing is that many people forget that capitalists exist to capture the state. They do this in various ways, including by directing public policy choices to favour their interests. Curiously, policy capture – often the basis of the capture of rents – is not under investigation. As such, I contend that it is really a no-brainer that states are contested by various interests for all kinds of capture.

What South Africa needs, like any serious state, is to have a state that enjoys ‘embedded autonomy’ and has a meritocratic bureaucracy that is firmly focused on the imperatives of development. That is the orientation and capacity you need for a developmental state. Simply put; ‘embedded autonomy’ means that the state must be autonomous enough to avoid narrow sectional capture and sufficiently networked in society in order to drive national development effectively.

The issue of corruption and state capture has actually diverted much of our attention and energies from the larger and urgent discussion on how we should pursue national development after the global economic crisis of 2007/8 and now, the Covid-19 pandemic. After all, through the National Development Plan (NDP), we agreed that development is the number one priority for South Africa.

Re-centering the discourse

Far from the screaming headlines of the day, South Africa has a lot to offer and more to do. As a starting point, I suggest that we need to re-center the national debate back to development without which we cannot hope to defeat poverty, inequality and unemployment. Thinking about and practicing development is quite a serious and urgent national task if we want to succeed, achieve inclusive growth and raise our regional and global competitiveness.

At the start of the previous decade, the debate was in developmental terms when the NDP and National Development Indicators (NDIs) were launched. These two initiatives got South Africa talking and thinking about development from a systemic and sectoral level. However due to politics and other intervening factors, momentum is lost, and the entire effort and discourse on development got derailed. Recent reports suggest that we have missed a number of NDP targets, which simply means that the NDP 2030 goals will not be met. And of course, the NDIs have been completely lost and so is our sense of measuring progress or lack thereof.

The idea of the NDP was so that we could ultimately realise our developmental state aspirations or at least some of us thought so. To be fair, the NDP did achieve one important thing: a national sense of vision and planning. It is indeed debatable whether the ‘plan’ is coherent, decisive on options and if it is being implemented in a coordinated and disciplined fashion. One thing remains though: South Africa needs to develop, yesterday!

The notion of a developmental state in South Africa predates the NDP or as others argue, the post-1994 South African state. It presupposes that development must be a state-led effort. In other words, contrary to neoliberal conceptions of the role of the state in society, developmental states are thrust into the centre of the economy and markets. In this sense, the state is not only a regulator, redistributor and an enabler, but a co-creator of wealth, value, growth and innovation.

Such a conception of the state and its role in the economy implies that we should rethink the very idea of public policy. We should see public policy as a space where issues and interests, people and institutions intersect to explore the best possible ways to achieve particular outcomes.

In South Africa, the aspiration towards a developmental state was re-established in the early 2000s and almost twenty years later, the developmental state has not emerged. On the contrary, we appear to be entrenching a Social Granting State with about 18 million recipients and counting.  

All states establish their legitimacy on the basis of economic development. States with higher rates of economic growth and development tend to experience better peace, longer periods of stability and greater social cohesion. Our economy is dogged by low levels of domestic investment, savings, research and development (R&D) and spatial distortions among other structural problems, hence the growth and transformation problem. 

Honestly, the fact that we have NEDLAC is not sufficient to have durable and working social compacts that work for inclusive national development. If you are lucky, NEDLAC will give you a statement of principles where the most senior leadership in government, business, labour and civil society spells out the broad areas of agreement. However, the real compact should be taking place between the political and economic elites and the other layer of senior bureaucrats and CEOs should be executing agreed plans with sound institutional arrangements. In that way, we will be combining a system think with a sectoral think. 

Among other things, this combined thinking methodology requires that we re-imagine our ‘institutional arrangements’ across a range of critical sectors and industries. That will mean that the state must have sufficient capacity to coordinate, lead and enforce new rules for a new game.

But the state must have legitimacy too and be organised in such a manner that enables it to discharge its developmental role. So far, the South African state has no pilot or central agency that truly drives and coordinates our national development effort. We have too many centres. It is therefore a state of disorganisation and fragmentation. I personally thought that the National Planning Commission would evolve to be that kind of centre!

In the end, it is clear that we need to rethink public policy in terms of the ideas that inform our efforts at national development. At a system and sector level, we also need to rethink the state, the quality of leadership across sectors, the nature of coordination, the kind of institutional arrangements we need, as well as the role of all other social partners.

The developmental state rhetoric is the only rhetoric that makes sense since 1994. It must be pursued without fear or favour. Otherwise, the alternative is another workable solution: revolution.

The temporary challenges (legitimacy and capacity constraints) facing the state should not discourage South Africans from the most urgent task at hand: achievement of national development goals. Equally, the reluctance of business to invest in the productive sectors of the economy, should not dampen our spirits. In fact, if anything, the Covid-19 crisis and the depressed economic conditions should revive our national resolve to pursue our developmental goals with more vigour, determination and discipline. A crisis is not something to waste. The development discourse must never be displaced.

This is the Unmandated Space. Welcome to it.

David Maimela is Executive Director of The Polisee Space, a pan-African public policy think-tank.