30 January, 2012

South Africa: The Next Tunisia

by Hussein Solomon
The recent Treasury report makes for sober reading noting that 66 of South Africa’s 278 municipalities are in financial distress with several others heading that way. For some the chaos currently overwhelming our municipalities reflects a dearth of technical skills and if this is corrected, then the situation is remedied. This is the position of the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) who remains confident that the insertion of public accounts committees at municipal level would prove the panacea for poor governance.

I do not share this confidence. The Treasury report is a reflection of a deeper malaise afflicting every facet of governance from national to provincial to local and this is the blurring of the lines between party and state. For much too long, the ANC has used its dominant position over the state apparatus to absorb the civil service at all levels into its patronage system. Party loyalists (or at least those loyal to the dominant faction of the party) were rewarded with plum positions in the civil service irrespective of competence. Consider here the two political appointees the ANC parachuted into the position of National Police Commissioner: Jackie Selebi and Bheki Cele – both with disastrous consequences for our country. The former has been convicted in a court of law whilst the latter was suspended allegedly awaiting deployment to a plum ambassadorial post.

Whilst such deployments of cadres into the civil service is good for the ANC in that one can reward loyalists or buy-off dissent, it severely damages South Africa as a whole. Service delivery suffers as the dearth of skills of deployed party cadres negatively impacts on that government department. As patronage becomes the norm for deployments into the civil service, governance increasingly becomes more authoritarian – civil servants thus deployed are beholden to the party for their position and not to the people they are supposed to deliver services to. As a consequence, too, governance becomes more opaque, as civil servants resist public scrutiny over the functioning of their departments. Such authoritarian and opaque governance also creates the conditions in which corruption finds fertile ground to grow. Whilst such corruption undermines the living standards of all South Africans, it is the poorest who suffer the most.

Such a situation cannot go on forever, as the daily service delivery protests illustrate. The ANC should take note of developments north of our borders. In Nigeria this past week, tens of thousands took to the streets expressing their unhappiness with the regime of President Goodluck Jonathan scrapping fuel subsidies. What angered these ordinary Nigerians was that they were being asked to tighten their belts whilst those at the top needed bigger belts. According to the World Bank, 80 percent of Nigeria’s oil wealth ends up in the pockets of just 1 percent of the population. Similar dynamics was evident in the Arab Spring with the socio-economic disparities between the political elite and ordinary citizens reaching such grotesque proportions that the regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak fell in rapid succession.

It is in this context that South Africa is particularly vulnerable. South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world with the gap between `haves’ and `have-nots’ getting ever wider. Whilst Khulubuse Zuma can drive his latest imported car, millions of South Africans worry about the rising cost of paraffin to light up their shacks. Whilst Kenny Kunene can enjoy his sushi off half naked women, millions of South Africans are not sure of their next meal. In this context, the ANC slogan of  “A Better Life for All” rings particularly hollow. In this context, South Africa could well be the next Tunisia...

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