Practical Reason blog

This blog contains some of my opinion pieces and short essays about politics. I will also place topical personal and political writing here.

Some of my books and edited collections are listed in the sidebar to the right. I have tried to indicate their intended audiences.

The picture on the home page was taken during the 2016 local government election campaign. ANC leaders have fortunately since stopped wearing horizontal stripes.

In the 2014 photo above, taken at the Presidential Guesthouse, President Zuma had just returned from Moscow, amidst rumours of illness or even poisoning. He seemed fragile and vulnerable. This did not last.

Anthony Butler

Lost jobs in the North can be tourism’s gain in SA

The meeting of the alliance political council that concluded on Monday offered depressing insight into the anachronistic preoccupations of the trade union and communist partners of the ANC.

Discussion centred on the survival of jobs in sunset industries and how to “reverse” the damage that has been done to state-owned monoliths.

Only one forward-looking topic was touted for the agenda of an upcoming alliance economic summit: the “fourth industrial revolution” and the “future of work”.

Revolutionary new technologies are causing concern around the world. Industrial jobs are already being lost, and there is a growing threat to many occupations in service industries.

The disruption caused by the technological revolution is likely to be greatest in developing countries. World Bank president Jim Yong Kim suggested in 2017 that, “two-thirds of all jobs that currently exist in developing countries will be wiped out by automation”. The bank has observed that, “the winners will be those who encourage skill-upgrading so that all can benefit from digital opportunities”.

Rather than focusing exclusively on education, however, our policy makers need to consider how to maximise the potentially positive impacts of automation.

Technological change will generate new and often unexpected forms of work. The most important of these, for which SA can begin to prepare now, will flow from a greater scale and variety of “tourism”.

The global tourist industry already embraces more than a billion travellers annually; SA receives around 10-million of these. This number has grown fast as a result of the emergence of new middle classes in developing countries such as China and India, an upswing of travel among western millennials, and population growth in Africa.

One by-product of technological advance is likely to be a huge scaling-up of such recreational travel. The fortunate citizens of wealthy countries are increasingly freed from mundane activities, and enjoy ever-easier access to cultural and leisure global opportunities.

Even more importantly, as automation continues to transform employment patterns, perhaps a third of the working age population of wealthy societies may find themselves unable to secure work at a living wage. There is currently a debate raging in the global North about how such displaced workers can be accommodated.

Although some political leaders have argued for the development of guaranteed work for all citizens, a more realistic proposal is the provision of basic income grants or longer periods of state-funded absence from the labour market.

In tandem with growing life expectancy, this change has the potential to bring about a massive increase in the number of visitors — many of whom may arrive in the guise of students, conservation volunteers or retiree “knowledge tourists”.

Rather than the 10 days that tourists spend in SA on average, they may spend long periods in low-and middle-income countries. Here basic incomes can stretch further, and unemployment can be recast as meaningful cultural engagement.

A major change in the mind-set of politicians and labour leaders will be needed if SA is to adjust to the changes that a tourist economy requires.

Successful tourist nations are obliged to endure some immediate humiliation and to abandon preconceptions about the nature of dignified labour.

Contemplate contemporary Britain: the theme park character of its towns and villages, the vulgarisation of its traditional leaders (or “royals”), and the repackaging and commodification of all aspects of its culture. A dose of cultural discomfort, however, is a small price to pay for what might ultimately be an increase in income and employment.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

New player-manager is yet to prove himself

Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: MASI LOSI

Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: MASI LOSI

 

 

What a difference a year makes. The whole country is enjoying a new manager bounce.

This time last winter a David v Goliath contest began to unfold when sleeping giant Cyrildinho ventured into the zone of uncertainty.

Pundits claimed he would come a cropper against trophy-holder Jacob “The Elephant” Zumario, who had been almost unplayable in his day.

Zumario’s “Ewags” (ex-wife and girlfriends) dubbed the challenger a dead man walking, but in a long match they failed to put away the ball.

It was The Elephant who received his marching orders: the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Crashing out of the competition in December, Zumario was forced to hang up his boots for good. With his clinical finishing, Cyrildinho had played a blinder.

It has been a baptism of fire, but possession is nine-tenths of the game. “CR”, as his fans call him, always reaches for the skies and never gives less than 110%.

The Brazil-influenced coach has brought veteran stylists Nenê and Gordhanio off the bench. He has slowed the flow of the game. Video assistant referee (VAR) Mogoengio Mogoengio has levelled the playing field in provincial red-card incidents.

Loyal to whoever is coach, head of elections Mbaks “Preservativo Explodindo” Mbalululio is a midfield terrier who covers literally every blade of grass on the pitch.

Fitness coach Gwede “Big Suits” Mantashio is running his socks off, using his notoriously low centre of gravity to deny “The Ace” control of the Luthuli Training Centre.

Form is temporary, while class is permanent. Cyrildinho is a playmaker who can control the pace of the game. If the team consistently deploys his ideological zonal marking system he could literally take the minnows to the cleaners in 2019.

The Blues and the Red Berets are in a relegation dogfight. Despite a giant-killer reputation, the Berets have been left red-faced by their travelling circus of hooligans. Julius Malemalario has proved to be a bit of a handful, but the young lion keeps pulling on his old team’s shorts. Spokesman Mbuyesenio Ndlozi insists that “we have had no bids for Malemalario … it would take silly money for him to leave”.

But locker-room gossip suggests the striker slammed a “derisory bid” from his old side, and the two clubs remain “miles apart” over the size of the fee.

The Blues have also been under the microscope.

“Dancing Queen” Helen Zilleria is as sick as a parrot.

Patricia de Lillio is back in the transfer zone after being frozen out by her team. There has been no shortage of suitors, with even the Red Berets mulling a bid. After going 2-0 up in the Western Cape High Court this week, she could be headed for the dreaded transfer limbo. She may have to start blowing her own vuvuzela once again.

If Cyrildinho lifts the Cup in 2019, the caretaker manager will start firing on all cylinders at last. Laggards will get the hairdrier treatment. There will be a flurry of yellow cards and a raft of substitutions. This time SA is literally in the last-chance saloon, but the fans will never stop believing. It’s always the hope that kills you.

Leading a team is a marathon and not a sprint. The new manager will have to grind out a result at whatever cost, and his fresh legs could help him go the distance. Cyrildinho certainly looks good on paper, but he will need to score to win.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

SA’s two school systems

On Saturday South Africans will celebrate Youth Day, a commemoration of the uprising that began in Soweto on June 16 1976. The uprising was triggered by the imposition of Afrikaans as a language of instruction but it drew on deeper grievances about apartheid SA.

Are we likely to see a repeat of this historic rebellion against injustice? Many things have changed for the better. Education is now celebrated for its ability to unlock fundamental rights to health, liberty, security, and political participation. It can deepen self-understanding, enhance economic growth and help society to adjust to the unfolding revolutions in artificial intelligence and robotics. The trouble is that SA now has two fundamentally different school systems, only one of which is even minimally equipped to take on such tasks.

Three-quarters of SA’s 14-million pupils attend dysfunctional schools that consistently underperform when it comes to educational outcomes. In rural provinces and townships, schools have seen a significant increase in grade 9 completions over the past two decades, but educational quality remains poor. Children are going to school but they are not learning.

Too few preschool children access adequate nutrition or attend well-organised creches. Their families are poor and sometimes broken, in communities often riven by violence. Teachers are poorly qualified and motivated. The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union has been implicated in the sale of posts, interference in promotions and resistance to mandatory competency testing.

The uneven provision of learning materials, buildings and facilities disrupts even well-run schools. Rural provinces and their failing and corrupt administrations cannot cope with large student numbers.

Most schools do not have effective governing bodies through which parents and communities can hold school managers, principals and teachers to account. Precisely because parents and pupils are so comprehensively disempowered, however, these prisons of the poor are unlikely to be the centres of any rebellion against the state.

Perhaps surprisingly, formerly white and Indian schools are far more likely to become sites of protest. While rural and township schools remain mostly monoracial, urban and suburban schools have become multiracial over two decades.

The children of the black middle class are now sharing some of the benefits of inclusion in a formerly whites-only arena. However, much as these schools may celebrate “diversity” and “inclusion”, they continue to be dominated by suburban catchment areas, white majority intakes, quasi-European cultures and languages, and predominantly white teaching staffs.

Educationalist Jonathan Jansen has harshly observed that the “black elite” sends its children to these schools in a “class compact between privileged whites and the black elite to keep the schools their children attend as essentially white institutions”. If Jansen is right, this is a fragile compact indeed, and it will be neither possible nor desirable to sustain very far it into the future. It is easy to see how conflict could be triggered among the supposed beneficiaries of this race and class compromise. It is even easier to see how those excluded from it will tire of their children’s marginalisation.

This is one area in which the government needs to plan ahead rather than to wait for a crisis to force its hand. “White-dominant” schools remain crucial pipelines that feed maths-literate and analytically accomplished learners — black as well as white — into post-school education and employment. The whole project of transformation depends on government’s ability to bring about meaningful change while not disrupting this key conduit of skills and capabilities.

 Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

The real victims of Eskom looting

For the most tragic victims of the great Eskom robbery, look to ordinary households

 

First published in BDLive

8 June 2018

The Eskom crisis is sometimes presented as a series of mild and victimless misdemeanours.

True, SA’s public finances have been imperilled and the country’s energy security has been threatened, but surely a revamped board will set the finances straight? And the nuclear sideshow has surely drawn to a close?

Most of Eskom’s looting beneficiaries remain remarkably sanguine about the results of their actions.

Many of the parastatal’s problems were highlighted two decades ago, when the then department of minerals and energy launched its vaunted energy white paper.

Governments around the world were moving away from vertically integrated and monopolistic power monoliths. The recommended pattern of reform was to separate power generation, the transmission grid and distribution systems.

Independent power producers (IPPs) would bring competition and cutting-edge technologies to generation. An independent grid would be overseen by a powerful regulator. Big energy users and regional electricity distributors, made up of aggregated municipalities, would purchase electricity in a competitive wholesale market.

Thabo Mbeki’s government at first seemed quite serious about these reforms. A national energy regulator was created in 2005. New electricity regulations, eventually promulgated in 2009, gave the Cabinet powers to plan the energy mix and to force Eskom to sign contracts with IPPs.

In the end, however, vested interests blocked change. High energy users, just 17 of whom accounted for half of all electricity consumption in 2010, lobbied to keep their cosy — and often seemingly corrupt — confidential purchase agreements with Eskom.

Municipalities fought to retain control of distribution. A recent report by Deloitte indicates that municipalities today earn a quarter of their total income (R22.5bn) from selling power. R15.7bn is paid to Eskom, and the R7bn surplus is used to cover general expenditure. Poor municipalities often stop paying at all.

Eskom managers battled to retain their generous salaries and benefits. Even before the employment and remuneration boom of the Zuma years, one parastatal manager defended her free golf lessons during working hours on the grounds that she was excluded, by her historically disadvantaged background, from participating in strategic meetings on golf courses.

The coal supply chain increasingly became a vector for patronage and elite profit.

With so many beneficiaries, it is easy to forget that there have been many more victims.

Prices have increased threefold in recent years, directly hitting consumers’ pockets. Unreliable and expensive electricity, moreover, discourages economic growth. Compelling research by Johannes Fedderke suggests that low growth directly drives high inequality in SA.

Meanwhile, the ANC’s economic transformation committee is still busy trying to work out how to convert public servants’ pension savings into Eskom debt — and the clever money is on them succeeding.

Despite all the hot air government exhales around the theme of small business development, some of the biggest constraints on small entrepreneurs are expensive electricity and low amperages that cannot support commercial refrigerators or power tools.

For the most tragic victims of the great Eskom robbery, however, we need to look to ordinary households. It is true that more than 85% of dwellings now have some access to electricity, up from 60% in 1996. Three-quarters of families use electricity for lighting, televisions and cellphones.

But, despite a free basic electricity allowance of 50kWh/month, the poor spend a far greater proportion of their income on energy than the rich.

Affordability, or rather unaffordability, is a real constraint on the uses to which electricity can be put by the poor.

By some estimates, electricity accounts for only 20% of household energy consumption. In rural areas, wood continues to be used for heating and cooking. In peri-urban areas, coal, wood and paraffin — and not electricity — remain the key energy sources for families.

The prevalence of coal generation has long resulted in generally poor air quality outside the breezy white suburbs. The use of wood and coal inside homes dramatically increases the incidence of lung diseases, especially among the women and children whose exposure is greatest.

Firewood collection is an arduous and costly burden, shouldered primarily by women. The ingestion of paraffin by children, and the 50,000 fires that occur annually in SA’s poorer residential areas, are responsible every year for thousands of deaths and an appalling number of horrific burns.

There have been crimes committed at Eskom, and there is no excuse for pretending they have been victimlesss.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

Long, winding road to a reformed state

 

Anthony Butler

1 June 2018

 

President Cyril Ramaphosa pledged in his first State of the Nation address to streamline the cabinet.

The Democratic Alliance has since called for a long-delayed overhaul of the “Ministerial Handbook”, which details senior politicians’ entitlements.

The handbook is a wonderful comic creation. The only obvious obstacle to profligacy it presents is that ministers and their spouses can only pick flowers planted for ornamental purposes on ministerial estates “after consulting the horticulturists of the Department of Public Works”.

Although disruption of the gravy train would indeed be welcome, Ramaphosa has indicated that he is more interested in the capacity of the whole current “configuration of government” to deliver on policy objectives.

A proactive, strategic and joined-up system of government is unlikely to be fashioned easily out of the current partial shambles. Democratic governance is always messy.

Two decades of tinkering – including a cabinet cluster system, national-provincial “MinMecs”, implementation forums, and a planning commission – have not yet resulted in passably effective coordination of the activities of national government departments, provinces, municipalities, and parastatals.

Different parts of the state machine continue to impose unnecessary costs upon one another — and on the nation’s long-suffering citizens. Treasury’s cost-containment has been a poor – if essential — substitute for a well-functioning state.

A recombination of government departments is one likely reaction to the proliferation of ministries under President Jacob Zuma. Departmental minnows such as small business development, sport and recreation, science and technology, water, arts and culture, and military veterans are likely to be absorbed into larger entities.

Strangely redolent of the divorce and remarriage of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the mid-1970s, the departments of our dashing telecommunications minister, Siyabonga Cwele, and his glamorous communications counterpart, Nomvula Mokonyane, are likely to be joined together once again in unholy matrimony after next year’s elections.

Perhaps more improbably, “governance” departments could be more or less eliminated. The work of Department of Public Enterprises could be allocated to functional departments such as energy and transport. The management of the public service could be absorbed into the presidency.

Such structural reforms save less money than might be expected, and often simply transfer cross-departmental coordination problems to the inside of larger departments.

Where, then, can we look for more productive reforms?

Half of the national budget moves more or less directly to the provinces, ostensibly to provide high quality education and health services. The discretion of provincial governments to spend this money as they see fit could be reined in.

An asymmetrical settlement – no doubt politically hard to impose — might oblige provinces like North West to demonstrate a capacity to allocate resources productively before they are progressively freed from Pretoria’s conditionalities.

There is a real communications challenge across the public service. Policy proposals need to be translated into ordinary (or at least intelligible) language so that they can be understood by the public servants who are supposed to implement them, and by the citizens who are supposed to benefit from them.

The Presidency, meanwhile, has been getting bigger without getting much better. It needs to provide a strategic counterpoint to treasury, which is most properly concerned with efficiency and value for money.

The establishment of a Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, has built a promising foundation for an effective “information state”. But the presidency probably needs a more nimble and political trouble-shooter, to bring to bear the authority of the highest office in the land on the most intractable conflicts between government departments. In particular, there is a case for a small and high profile delivery unit to focus on unblocking implementation bottlenecks.

Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

 

 

Making a difference

President Cyril Ramaphosa will soon conclude his first 100 days in office. Debate continues to rage about the likely impact he will have on the future of the country he now leads.

Supporters of the president claim that his rise represents a turning point for the nation. Sceptics counter that Ramaphosa has once again this week shown himself to be a weak leader who is unable to confront the inexorable forces tearing SA apart.

All this brings us to the most imponderable question of leadership: what difference can he make?

Social scientists and historians tend to discount the influence of leaders. They prefer “structural” explanations for events that focus on what is likely to happen in the longer term, regardless of the intentions and actions of particular political figures.

FW de Klerk astonished the National Party politicians in February 1990 when he announced the unbanning of opposition parties and the release of Nelson Mandela. But the economic and political forces driving the National Party to negotiate were so powerful that any other leader would, sooner or later, almost certainly have had to take more or less the same steps.

Few scholars would venture that the broad character of the post-apartheid settlement would have been dramatically changed if a leader other than Mandela had been at the helm of the ANC. In most scholars’ eyes, leaders are the vectors of wider historical forces rather than the “makers of history”.

Even in more narrow fields of human endeavour, great leaders rarely alter the course of human affairs for long. The replacement of one business leader by another does not usually change the share price of a major global corporation. Great generals such as Hannibal, Napoleon Bonaparte and Rommel won stunning victories but were ultimately swept aside by lesser opponents who could deploy greater resources.

The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House has brought the “question of leadership” back to global prominence. The late historian Eric Hobsbawm once reflected that the US has “probably elected to its presidency … a greater number of ignorant dumbos than any other republic”. No matter how feeble the president, however, “the great US ship of state has sailed on as though it made very little difference”.

If the US political system is “foolproof” as Hobsbawm claims, this is because every leader is embedded in a strong system of institutional constraints. When it comes to Trump’s America, we will have to wait and see if such institutions are as robust as the historian assumes.

At least Ramaphosa’s political history should give us some cause for hope here at home.

Jacob Zuma’s tenure confirmed that it is far easier for a political leader to do harm than to do good.

There is absolutely no reason to suppose that Ramaphosa will initiate disruptive programmes of factional enrichment or institutional destabilisation of the kind that marked Zuma’s two terms. Ramaphosa’s primary accomplishments across his career have been in the creation of new and enduring forms of authority. The National Union of Mineworkers testifies to his ability to build an enduring institution. The final Constitution of 1996, forged in extremely trying circumstances, continues more than two decades later to shape national political life for the better.

The true value of Ramaphosa’s leadership should not be measured in terms of the hasty purging of factional opponents or in his success or otherwise in staging show trials of the agents of state capture.

Ramaphosa will make an enduring positive difference to this country only by rescuing and constructing enduring institutions and by entrenching effective and impersonal systems of good governance.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Lessons from Nelson Mandela Bay

December’s ANC elective conference proved that money is not always decisive in the movement’s politics. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s victory was a double-edged sword for party modernisers, however. He supports their cause, but his win has relieved pressure for change in how the ANC is run.

Activist and former environmental affairs and tourism director-general Crispian Olver’s insightful 2017 book, How to Steal a City, sets out the scale of the reformists’ challenge. While SA watched aghast as state capture unfolded, at provincial and local levels “money-politics” and patronage have become most deeply entrenched. Olver was part of a “regional task team” assembled to render a discredited local ANC electable in Nelson Mandela Bay in 2016. He was also reporting directly to the prominent anticorruption fighter and minister Pravin Gordhan on what had caused the rot in the city.

Olver’s diagnosis begins from the insight that factions “are not born out of money”. A left-oriented ANC grouping, under the moniker “Stalini”, started out promoting pro-poor upliftment. Licensed by ANC doctrines that dismiss the border between party and state, the group interfered in the appointment of city officials and in the management of council affairs. Pretty soon it was doling out contracts, jobs and money to those whose support it, to win political battles. Criminal syndicates recruited participating city officials and politicians, serving as “bankers” to the dominant faction. Money was made available to win internal power struggles, only to be repaid in contracts and jobs. Along the way, many players amassed tidy personal fortunes.

Olver is keen to present positive news about the turnaround operation. A well-organised intervention group with political protection successfully expelled corrupt officials. Criminal charges and civil claims will eventually bring financial ruin and imprisonment to many offenders. With better support from state security agencies and the prosecutions authority, still more might have been accomplished.

Olver does not explore how the ANC’s loss of power in the city in 2016 affected outcomes. After all, the impetus to investigation and prosecution is strong in part because it brings political advantage to the city’s new governors. A “cleaned-up” ANC under candidate mayor Danny Jordaan might not have undertaken lasting reforms to financial control or supply chain management systems.

While the Gauteng ANC has shown that transparent planning, housing and staff appointment systems are not intrinsically alien to the movement, it remains an open question whether such practices can take root in the ANC elsewhere. One key problem, as Olver observes, is that the ANC is ideologically opposed to any clear dividing line between the governing party and the state. This makes it hard to establish an expertise-valuing and performance-based culture.

He links this challenge to the still uneasy relationship between citizens and public authority. The state is still widely viewed as an alien and hostile entity that can justifiably be evaded, outsmarted or even looted. The partial clean-up of Nelson Mandela Bay, on Olver’s account, would not have been possible without the energies of civic organisations, whistle-blowers and journalists. Rooting out the ANC’s deep-seated hostility towards just these civil society actors is another massive challenge.

The deepest conundrum for ANC reformers is that its own powerful provincial and local leaders are unlikely to rally behind a modernisation programme. Politicians who have risen by means of rigged internal elections and patronage will need to be persuaded that wide-ranging reforms are in their best interests. This is not impossible in principle; but it is not yet clear how it might be accomplished in practice.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

When a crisis is not a crisis

It sometimes seems that SA is inherently unstable and beset by calamities that threaten to unravel the whole fabric of society. However, in a conservative and deeply resilient country such as SA, an apparent crisis is usually not a real crisis.

At first sight, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ambitious drive to boost foreign and domestic investment cannot be reconciled with his calls for land expropriation without compensation. Surely a crisis of confidence in property rights will destroy investor confidence?

The trouble with a real catastrophe is that once it strikes it is usually too late to do much about it.

The most astute politicians and business moguls recognise this fact. For this reason, they try to identify the potential solutions to major challenges in advance. Only then do they engender a sense of crisis that allows a chokehold on policy change to be released.

SA’s apparent crises are often the creations of canny politicians and businesspeople working in cahoots.

Take the democratic transition, in which Ramaphosa played such a crucial role.

The negotiators on both sides could see what a sustainable political settlement would entail. Their real challenge, however, was to bring their own constituencies into line.

How could white racial extremists, leftist anticapitalists and African nationalists be persuaded to support a constitutional settlement based on human rights and commerce? Only by creating a sense of historic crisis.

This admittedly violence-fuelled uncertainty encouraged unexpected compromises to be reached. Ultimately, it resulted in a settlement that could never have been sold to either side based on rational dialogue alone.

Less than a decade later, an HIV/AIDS calamity threatened fiscal crisis, social disintegration and the destruction of democratic politics. A crisis-awakened country responded with massive prevention and care interventions and with the world’s largest treatment programme. Conflict over HIV entrenched the legitimacy of an activist judiciary and established the fallibility of overbearing presidents.

It is arguable that the greatest challenge for AIDS policy in SA today is that the HIV epidemic is no longer viewed as a crisis. New HIV infections have fallen by half since 2010.

However, SA still has the largest epidemic in the world, with more than 7-million people living with the virus.

A little more than half of HIV-positive people are receiving antiretroviral therapies, rather than the nine out of 10 that is the government’s stated goal.

In SA, a crisis is sometimes needed to get the right things done. A land expropriation crisis may therefore be the opposite of what it seems: an opportunity rather than a threat.

Ramaphosa doubtless had little choice but to act on the resolution adopted by the ANC at its conference last December, but the political energy that has been unleashed by the “land question” may now be channelled towards long-anticipated and benign policy changes that have been blocked by entrenched interests.

Vested interests take many forms: traditional leaders who deny their subjects control over their own land in much of rural SA; commercial farmers who have used evictions to reduce their exposure to perceived political risks; municipalities that have failed to document ownership in peri-urban areas; parastatals and government departments that have blocked the use of their land for housing and economic development; and property owners who have used political donations and litigation to protect their private economic advantages.

Engendering a sense of crisis always carries risks, of course.

Having a land crisis in SA, however, may ultimately be far less hazardous than not having one.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Public sector wage freezes

As the government and trade union negotiators lock horns in the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council, there has been a growing clamour in the business community for the public sector wage bill to be slashed. After all, the ANC describes SA as a “developmental state” in which investment should take priority over consumption. Diverting a third of government spending into wages suggests precisely the opposite tendency.

The government has been forced to cut key grants for municipal infrastructure, water services and urban settlements to accommodate higher pay for more numerous public servants. A growing public sector payroll, meanwhile, forces the finance minister to borrow more, thus crowding out private investment.

Unilaterally imposed public sector pay cuts or freezes offer a tempting route to fiscal consolidation. An across-the board 10% wage cut could, in theory, reduce public spending by a whacking 3%.

But governments elsewhere have accumulated a wealth of experience about the risks of sweeping cuts or freezes. The “conditionalities” imposed by international lending institutions have often damaged countries’ longer-term economic and developmental prospects.

Since the global economic crisis unfolded in 2008, numerous countries have experimented with “austerity budgets”, featuring public sector pay freezes or cuts. The results have been at best mixed.

SA can learn the following lessons from these experiences:

• Wage cuts tend to affect aggregate demand unexpectedly hard because public sector workers have a high propensity to consume. Cuts should therefore be concentrated among highly paid public servants. Government negotiators’ current proposals, which favour employees on levels one to seven and mildly penalise levels 11 and 12, do not go anywhere near far enough;

• Increased taxes tend to promote better distributional outcomes than spending cuts. Carbon taxes, sin taxes and perhaps even land taxes can also contribute to meeting wider policy objectives;

• Approaches that spread the pain around, such as general recruitment freezes and pay cuts for the workforce as a whole, tend to result in suboptimal outcomes. Pay rises should always be linked in some way to productivity gains. Freezes of frontline posts in education, nursing and policing invariably have negative long-term consequences for human and economic development. Cuts should instead reflect a considered strategy to streamline government operations. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s pledge to “review the configuration, number and size of national government departments” is thus welcome;

• The public service is the key motor for class mobility and it has been the vector through which hundreds of thousands of black citizens entered the middle class. The government needs a clearer sense of what such sociohistorical gains are worth to the country and of how to price them; and

• The less tangible costs of freezing recruitment and pay should not be underestimated. When downsizing or cost-cutting, the best private firms prepare detailed implementation and communication plans, and follow these up with employee care and retraining programmes. Downsizing, however, still affects motivation, institutional memory and performance. In the public sector, pay or recruitment freezes that are experienced as essentially arbitrary will similarly undermine employee loyalty and engagement to the detriment of work quality and performance.

The government needs longer-range strategies for improving the quality of state spending and the performance of public servants.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

The DA’s crisis

The DA is in crisis. There are challenges to the chairman of the party’s federal council, James Selfe, who has guided the party for more than a decade.

The effectiveness of party president Mmusi Maimane has been questioned by the DA’s own researchers. Controversies swirl around senior party figures, including Western Cape Premier Helen Zille and City of Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille.

The DA’s strong performance in the 2016 local government elections was built on hypermotivated white voters in Gauteng and their coloured counterparts in the Cape. It is ironic that tribalism in politics is now exhibited most visibly by the DA. But it is wrong, if tempting, to attribute all the party’s problems to racial politics.

Ideas matter. Some party activists remain wedded to the curious variant of liberalism that guided the Democratic Party. The current leadership includes one prominent proponent of creationism and homophobia, a black consciousness activist, and a champion of xenophobia and free market access to hair products. No wonder electors are confused.

 The underlying cause of the DA’s problems perhaps lies in SA’s one-party dominant party system. The liberation movement is everywhere, telling voters what they want to hear, dominating policy debates and belittling opposition politicians. It is curious that the ANC has survived its own appalling governance record and the incoherence of its current policy proposals. It is even more puzzling why no opposition party or coalition has come close to defeating it at national level.

Certain key factors explain the resilience of swaggering, dominant parties such as the ANC. They make full use of the advantages of incumbency, shamelessly allocating jobs, contracts and state resources to party supporters. Their seemingly inevitable victory discourages office-seeking politicians and energetic volunteer activists alike from supporting any other party. Right now, it is still the ANC that offers a route to national office. What rational, young politician would join a party that cannot reliably deliver a seat?

Opposition parties such as the DA and the EFF adopt “noncentrist” policies that do not appeal to typical voters. Because candidates and activists joined with little hope of winning, they tend to be a bit crazy: many of them are ideologues, extremists or sociopaths, such as Julius Malema or Zille. Socioeconomic concerns preoccupy most South African citizens. The DA is obsessed by corruption and a narrow swathe of urban and peri-urban policy issues. Opposition leaders such as Zille indulge in ideological posturing that they must know is damaging to their parties’ electoral prospects.

The DA is also trapped by its funders. It has allowed commercial farmers to waste water resources at great cost to the Western Cape’s economy. The party has bowed and scraped before these dinosaurs, and such grovelling can only be explained by party donations.

The DA’s credibility will rest on its coalition-building strategy. It has benefited handsomely from previous liaisons with the Inkatha Freedom Party, the National Party and the Independent Democrats. But the DA’s alliance of convenience with the EFF is destined to fall apart in the very near future, generating great animosity.

The ideological distance between the two parties will grow if Cyril Ramaphosa keeps occupying more of the political middle ground. Who will be the DA’s partner now?

The DA and the EFF will have to be more ruthless if they are to continue to grow. They need to find out where the rough centre of ground in SA politics lies, drag themselves towards it, message smartly to different constituencies and silence their egregiously self-indulgent leaders.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.