Here’s what a new government must do to fix our broken state

Here’s what a new government must do to fix our broken state

Imagine it is six months from now, towards the end of May 2024. South Africa has just held its seventh post-democratic national and provincial elections. Voter turnout peaks at an all-time high, and unexpectedly, the governing African National Congress (ANC) receives well below 50% of the vote and cannot form a majority government at the national level.

An assortment of political parties has struck a coalition agreement that will see a changing of the guard at the Union Buildings. For the first time in democratic South Africa, the ANC is out of the national government, and a new era is under way. Change has come and the era of one-party dominance that delivered State Capture is over.

There certainly is the euphoria of change. But as the confetti settles, the harsh reality becomes quickly apparent to the new government. The national fiscus is almost dry. The balance sheet reads like a Stephen King novel. Eskom, Transnet and other state-owned enterprises are hollowed out and in a debt death grip, unable to perform basic functions.

The state’s foreign policy is set up to serve the interests of the ANC instead of those of citizens. Patronage and vested interests are deeply rooted in every corner of the government. From procurement contracts to ghost employees, the rot is deeper than meets the eye.

At home, South Africans are not shielded from the harsh consequences of a lopsided, ailing economy and a broken state. Unemployment remains high, the cost of living is fast becoming unaffordable — electricity, transport and food prices keep rising rapidly — and crime is spiralling out of control. Fifteen years of ANC failure in government got us here.

Nine years of Jacob Zuma’s destruction were followed by six years of Cyril Ramaphosa’s apathy and inaction. While Zuma threw South Africa into treacherous waters, Ramaphosa twiddles his thumbs and looks the other way as we tread water on the brink of drowning.

Every year the ANC spent digging our country into the hole will take a year of digging ourselves out. Patience and pragmatism will be required — overlaid by an aggressive plan to boost and grow the economy.

A recent paper by Harvard University’s Growth Lab, Growth Through Inclusion in South Africa, is instructive as to what a new government should immediately tackle. In its in-depth research, it finds the two primary issues causing stagnation are collapsing state capability and spatial exclusion.

The research finds that the government, in its current composition, does not have the ability to address historical (and contemporary) injustices and build the country. “Achieving a better economic future will require addressing both constraints,” reads the paper.

There are limitless proposals and interventions; however, there are some that a new multiparty government would have little hesitation agreeing on. Let’s consider those.

Collapsing state capability

Building a capable state first requires a smaller state. The current structure is too big to deliver and too confusing to be efficient. This reduction and repurposing must be the core focus of the government. This includes the economic cluster, education, social and health services, safety and defence, and foreign relations.

“Superministries”, streamlined and attractive to top talent, are essential. A capable state also requires capable individuals who are skilled and professional. Dead wood must be removed amid a national recruitment drive to professionalise public service and administration.

South Africa certainly has the talent and skill; now’s the time to bring the two together. Instead of being deterred from a career in public service, measures must be taken to attract independent-minded, highly skilled and politically neutral actors into all spheres of government.

To bolster this, initiate an incentive-based scheme for all public sector employees. Much like a commission-based system, reward the best performers within the state for their excellence. Flat rates breed mediocrity and fail to attract real talent. This will go a long way towards instilling a culture of excellence within the public sector.

Then, open up the appointment process for Cabinet positions. There should be more latitude for the President to appoint the best candidates to the Cabinet. Section 91(3)(c) of the Constitution can be amended to allow the President to appoint anyone they deem fit. The section states that the President “may select no more than two ministers from outside Parliament”.

Changing this allows the President to appoint ministers who are actually experienced in their relevant fields. We should not have politicians as the ministers of finance, health or education — they should be businesspeople, doctors and teachers/lecturers.

To mitigate against improper behaviour within the government, overhaul the tender process. Placing maximum transparency as best practice, an online tender system will achieve this, whereby objections can be lodged in a seven-day period before funds are disbursed to tender winners. Permanently implemented continual lifestyle audits of all politicians and senior government officials should be the norm.

Lifestyle audits must be given sufficient teeth to expose those who have been accumulating wealth from tenders and other forms of abuse of power. Done without robust measures, these can be a window-dressing exercise, designed to simply exonerate as many people as possible.

To be effective, lifestyle audits must be forensic in nature — looking into bank accounts, debit payments, school fee payments, trust accounts and all money that changes hands with politicians.

Building a capable state requires reviewing the mandates and functions of all state-owned enterprises (SOEs). If they are no longer required, shut them down. As for the economically vital SOEs, they must be strengthened. Build-own-operate initiatives in the energy space will free up Eskom to focus on distribution, its debt and capital attrition, and planning for a green energy future.

Transnet’s first move must be to onboard private/public partnerships with the right partners to strengthen leadership and inject capital.

Spatial exclusion

Our country’s cities illustrate that job creation in and of itself does not solve spatial exclusion. While the cities have a slightly lower unemployment rate than the rest of the country, they still largely resemble the spatial architecture of apartheid’s separate development. This is a justice issue as much as it is an economic issue. How to solve this?

Integrated public transport is one consideration. It speeds up the flow of people within cities and opens access to all areas for all people. However, there are additional steps that should be taken.

First, move people closer to work. Affordable housing and mixed-income housing close to economic activity are matters of justice. These efforts must be intensified and incentivised. Second, and arguably of greater value, is moving work closer to people.

Townships remain dormitories of unemployment and underdevelopment. Rapidly stimulating the township economy through special economic zones (SEZs) will generate new jobs where people live and uplift those neglected communities. It will stimulate the economy by investing in infrastructure, enhancing citizens’ skills and supporting entrepreneurial ventures. DM