political economy politics

How to find a way back from a state of intrigue

CEASEFIRE is not a word you’d expect to hear when the discussion is about the intergovernmental relations of a country at peace. But speaking at the Nedlac annual summit last week, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa called for a ceasefire between warring sections of the state. If not a ceasefire, the deputy president implored members of the state to act in a way that maintained stability.

For a country battling with complex, pervasive and longstanding challenges, to make progress requires a strong, capable state pursuing a unified vision relentlessly. Yet in big and small ways, the government is fragmented and disorientated. The observation by the deputy president that the state is seemingly at war with itself does not point to something new. The state has been at war with itself for some time, though in less dramatic ways.

We have become accustomed to contradictions where government policy is undermined by the actions of its departments and agencies. These contradictions plague aspects of economic policy, ranging from small business development to broadband policy, where different parts of government sing from different hymn sheets.

The more visible skirmishes, particularly the hostility from various quarters against the Treasury, have laid bare the current administration’s lack of direction. If in the past there were clear themes that drove the national agenda — such as the quest for a developmental state, a more ambitious continental renewal agenda or reconstruction — now there is intrigue and machination.

Once a government descends into such, it is hard to find a way back. This stuff is addictive. It becomes easier for everyone — government insiders, business, analysts, media — to feast on a steady diet of personality clashes, backroom deals and sensation. This is a narrative that fuels itself. It is easy. Anybody can play the guessing game, figuring out who’s in or out, whom to butter up and whom to ignore. There is no demand to engage with substance.

As matters descend along this path, it is difficult to think how public governance will get back on track. What will animate the cause for reform? In recent times, it was hoped the possibility of a downgrade would be the major threat that would galvanise actions to get economic and related policies on track. But this has apparently not been enough, much as the threat of losing the confidence of international investors or “the markets” hasn’t swayed the course of events. Local business confidence has hit rock bottom, without much effect. It might be argued that the impulse for change will best come from the governing party, but the efforts of critical voices within the ANC have yielded very little to date.

And so the economy meanders along. What form change will take, if any, is hard to predict. There is no question that ordinary people suffer from poor economic outcomes. Those who hover in and out of poverty have much to gain from stability. The very poor have little hope of escape in the prevailing climate.

The problem is that too many South Africans can rightly ask whether those heydays when the country’s international reputation was fairly solid and its investment-grade status unquestioned meant much to them.

The “war” within the state will come to an end when more people say “not in our name”. As it stands, the mischief makers have cloaked themselves in the garb of everyman, taking on previously “untouchable” elite technocrats.

A broad-based movement for change may yet emerge, driven not by external considerations or the interests of privileged stakeholders, but by those who bear the most bitter brunt of economic stagnation. This is the challenge for would-be reformers: more people have to believe that getting back on the right economic growth trajectory is not an elite project, but one that will deliver shared prosperity.

Makhaya is CEO of Makhaya Advisory.

This piece was first published in Business Day (13 September 2016)

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