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 home page shows deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and NUM general secretary Frans Baleni at a NUM meeting in Boksburg in 2015.

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

A growing centralisation of power

ANTHONY BUTLER: A president at the wheel is far better than a reshuffle

First published in BL Premium and Business Day

10 JUNE 2021

Few events in politics are as captivating as a cabinet reshuffle. There is the excitement of new ministers rising to confront great national challenges, and there is the more profound satisfaction of seeing lousy incumbents demoted.

But perhaps the value of a reshuffle is overstated. Certainly President Cyril Ramaphosa has avoided the frenzied reshuffling that scarred the Jacob Zuma era. Then we had a new energy minister every year, the “weekend special”, yokels from the maize producing provinces, and spooks from KwaZulu-Natal — and all of the appointments were proclaimed in advance in the New Age newspaper.

Announcing his last reshuffle in May 2019 Ramaphosa explained he had taken “a number of considerations” into account, including “experience, continuity, competence, generational mix and demographic and regional diversity”.

Now that leading ministers are keen to spend more time with their families, or at least with their lawyers, Ramaphosa has presumably been scouring a list of members of the ANC national executive committee looking for these qualities, perhaps with a growing sense of despair.

He will also have run his finger down the roll-call of liberation movement members deployed to parliament. This dismal catalogue prominently features political zombies such as Supra Mahumapelo and Faith Muthambi, consigned to rot in the committee rooms precisely so they could do no further harm to the country.

Ramaphosa is less pressured by opposition parties than he should be because the white walkers of Dainfern and Bryanston will not breach the wall to vote in large numbers. Ramaphosa’s primary concerns are closer to home, and he will be wary of pushing powerful comrades out of cabinet without very good reason.

Ramaphosa may conclude that a cabinet reshuffle is merely the rearrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic. Why not go straight to the bridge, and steer the ship away from the iceberg himself?

First, Ramaphosa can exercise power through the senior officials who are the repositories of a modicum of wisdom, or at least institutional memory, in government departments. If they do their jobs properly, officials in the forum of directors-general (DGs) can avoid disturbing the placid intellectual waters that ideally should characterise the ministerial mind.

Reforms under way may indeed soon extend the tenure of effective DGs, and a new role for the head of the public service in managing officials’ careers may soon tilt the balance of power towards the centre.

Second, the presidency itself can surely take on some roles previously reserved to ministers. The National Treasury is under enormous strain, but it remains far more capable than its sectoral peers, and Ramaphosa has used Operation Vulindlela to tap into its expertise — not least in energy policy. It may be that reason can be more generally deployed, for example in expenditure reviews, to rein in the budgets of functional departments.

The president’s advisory bodies, presidential councils, and commissions have been widely ridiculed. But the Presidential Economic Advisory Council, the Investment and Infrastructure Office, and the Presidential Climate Change Coordinating Commission are starting to generate realisable goals and concrete actions. The president can use their recommendations to drive strategic priorities from the centre of government.

Finally, “do nothing” ministers have not been the central problem. The real challenge has been the small number of very capable ministers who have been actively obstructing Ramaphosa’s stated priorities, energy minister Gwede Mantashe and public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan among them. As Ramaphosa showed yesterday, when he lifted companies’ electricity generation threshold to 100MW, he is perfectly able to overrule his ministers when they are blocking key reforms.

Governing from the centre can be a hazardous enterprise, and the odds against success remain daunting. However, for passengers on the Titanic, Ramaphosa’s decision to centralise greater authority in the bridge of the presidency is a more positive development than yet another rearrangement of the deck chairs.

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

What is it like to be a health minister?

ANTHONY BUTLER: Mkhize’s new affliction adds grief to a chronically unhealthy department

 BL PREMIUM 27 MAY 2021

Spare a thought for beleaguered health minister Zweli Mkhize. It has been a bad year for health ministers around the world. In truth, however, it is never a political blessing to hold this dismal portfolio.

Health ministers everywhere find themselves curiously powerless at the best of times. Unable to divert resources from expensive and ineffectual treatment programmes to the prevention initiatives that are the real route to a flourishing population, they are condemned to be ministers of illness rather than of health.

The drivers of illness lie far beyond their portfolio’s reach. When ordinary people have decent work, nutritious food and shelter, they are robust. When they are properly educated, they know how to look after their own health and that of their families.

Other ministers hold the real levers of power. Death and injury, for example, can justly be laid at the doors of our ministers for transport and policing. Without public transport in rural areas poor people cannot even reach the best of clinics. The long commutes of the apartheid city bring obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Expensive hospital beds are choked with the elderly, who should be cared for in social protection programmes. Murky water kills our young children. The indoor burning of coal and wood ruins lungs, while paraffin stoves cause serious burns; both are the products of disastrous energy policies.

Can any health minister tell ordinary citizens to stop indulging their cravings for sex, alcohol and tobacco? It is surely likewise prudent not to walk across the moral minefields of contraception or abortion.

The benefits of good public health are spread too diffusely to be noticed, and ordinary people will not credit the minister for realising them. Meanwhile, powerful groups such as hospitals, insurers, drug companies and unions will frustrate any residual potential for benevolent change.

Now Covid-19 has made things immeasurably worse. Last week 54 Commonwealth health ministers pointed to the suspension of pre-existing immunisation campaigns, the collapse of many essential health services, and the erosion of programmes to combat malaria, HIV/Aids and noncommunicable diseases.

Tunisia has had three health ministers in a year, and the Czech Republic four in eight months. In the UK, by contrast, health secretary Matt Hancock seemed to be basking in the glow of public adulation as a result of the successful unrolling of a national vaccination programme.

Then on Wednesday Dominic Cummings, a former senior aide to prime minister Boris Johnson, told a parliamentary committee that “tens of thousands of people … who didn’t need to die” had perished needlessly during that country’s Covid-19 epidemic. He laid much of the blame at Hancock’s door, describing the minister as a serial liar and incompetent, who had mismanaged every aspect of the crisis, from protective equipment purchases, to test and trace systems, to the protection of old people.

Mkhize is locked in a passing scandal concerning an irregular communications contract granted by his department. This storm in a teacup may quickly pass, but no health minister can rest easy in a world dominated by Covid-19.

In an eerie parallel to the UK this country has also suffered about 150,000 deaths from the virus, and each departed soul has left behind grieving friends and relatives. Unlike his British counterpart, Mkhize cannot hide behind a successful vaccination programme should public sentiment suddenly turn against him.

Cummings testified that he had repeatedly urged the prime minister to sack Hancock, but that Johnson decided to keep him in place. Why? Johnson, it seems, wanted his hapless minister to serve as a sacrificial lamb once that great British invention, the commission of inquiry, began to perform its blame-shifting and mystificatory magic.

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

Managing joint programmes for public service reform

ANTHONY BUTLER: Joint rollout of tranceformation set to blur departments together

According to rumours, President Cyril Ramaphosa has given the green light to the use of marijuana in the affairs of state

First published in BL PREMIUM

13 MAY 2021

ANTHONY BUTLER

There has been a big global shift in attitudes towards marijuana consumption over the past decade. Incoming US president Joe Biden even pledged to support federal decriminalisation.

Rumours now circulating in Pretoria suggest President Cyril Ramaphosa has likewise given the green light to the use of marijuana to advance intragovernmental organisational change.

Public service & administration minister Senzo Mchunu will reportedly unveil an initiative at the 20th Annual Conference of the SA Association of Public Administration and Management in Sun City later this year.

Widely accepted benefits of cannabis consumption include the management of epileptic seizures, lowered blood pressure and relief from posttraumatic stress disorder. In Switzerland — a pioneer in the use of marijuana for therapeutic purposes — the drug has been shown to reduce suicide in prisons by up to 10%. Little wonder, then, that Mchunu believes marijuana could assist in the reform of SA’s troubled public service.

Three potential benefits have been isolated by a team at the Public Service Commission. First, a senior researcher has revealed that heavy marijuana use is effective for inducting new recruits. “We take bright young people from the best universities in SA”, she observed. “It takes years to break down their moral intuitions and intellectual capabilities so they can function effectively in national government departments.”

Studies show daily cannabis use as part of the National School of Government’s “inboarding and induction programme”, could dramatically reduce “acclimatisation” times.

A second benefit of routine cannabis ingestion concerns stalled wage negotiations. Journalists detected the first signs of the new approach towards the end of April, when Mchunu called on citizens in general to provide suggested solutions to the impasse. Lying on a yoga mat, he observed that “there can be no government without citizens … They are an important component and we have to get them on board.” The Public Servants Association reportedly conceded “that’s fine with us, bru”.

A third advantage of mandatory cannabis consumption concerns Ramaphosa’s promise to remove incompetent cabinet ministers and unnecessary bureaucracy. “This poses a threat to the very existence of government”, one expert paper under peer review has said.

Building on research from scientists at the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research, a presidency team has finalised a confidential “protocol for the systematic application of marijuana in national strategic planning”.

“We discovered that PowerPoint presentations delivered by officials from the department of public service & administration induce a trance-like state in those watching them,” a management consultant revealed. “It is suboptimal to engage with the department without a prior pharmacological modality.”

An organigram of the government machine, reportedly kept under wraps in the basement of the Union Buildings, has been used to try out the new approach. “The president couldn’t make any sense of it to start with,” an intern said, “but once he had a smoke he decided to blur the presidency and Treasury together.”

Meanwhile, appropriate medication has enabled senior strategy advisers to understand for the first time what the “cabinet cluster system” means.

“The department of public service & administration, the department of co-operative governance, and department of public enterprises are just co-ordinating departments”, they said. “After a few nice cookies, we realised the whole governance cluster is just lots of people trying to co-ordinate each other.”

Sceptics believe the government may find it hard to push through a reform agenda while under the influence of marijuana. But a senior government adviser pointed to a policy document pushed through the cabinet in 2005: “It is called the framework for managing joint programmes in the public service. This is exactly what we all need right now. We will try to find it tomorrow.”

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

Why Magashule’s departure matters

ANTHONY BUTLER: Cyril Ramaphosa’s goal was more ambitious than to simply kick Ace Magashule out

Magashule’s removal has been used to institute a new rule of conduct in the practices of the ANC

First published BL PREMIUM

6 MAY 2021

The fate that has befallen ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule was worse than a mere termination of employment. He was thrown out of a high window, only to spread out like a pancake — or perhaps a cow pat — on the unforgiving ground below.

Those who are defenestrated endure a few long-drawn-out moments of consciousness, in which they can reflect on what has just happened to them. The thought no doubt flashed through Magashule’s mind that it was all so unfair.

The ANC’s electoral strategy rests on the conceit that the “good ANC” is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the “bad ANC”. The secretary-general was framed as the perfect embodiment of the dark side, and he was henceforth destined for humiliation.

One key issue was always timing: why would the incumbent faction rush to throw out Magashule, in what would have looked like a factional purge, when it could instead play on the threat he posed to the future of the liberation movement?

ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa used his cameo appearance at the Zondo commission of inquiry to remind party members of the movement’s electoral vulnerability. The disappearance of a few bad eggs, he implied, was a sacrifice the movement simply had to accept. Only this would persuade the voters that the forces of light were in the ascendant, and that the ANC could therefore be trusted with their votes.

The president may also have done something very clever indeed. Across his political career Ramaphosa has been a keen advocate for rule-based behaviour. On the whole, he has wisely preferred to make the rules, while others have had to follow them. When setting up student Christian bodies or the National Union of Mineworkers, for example, he designed intricate constitutions to regulate the actions of the organisations’ members.

At the Zondo commission just last week he shook his head about the lamentable state of affairs with respect to the role of money in internal party elections — not least the one in which he was elected president of the ANC. New rules to limit such reprehensible tendencies should certainly be introduced in the near future, he suggested.

On a broader canvas, Ramaphosa has expressed support for rule-based and institutionally circumscribed governance. More than a decade ago, reflecting on SA’s constitution-making process in which he played such an important role, he observed that South Africans “chose to be limited by our constitution” because they “recognised the danger of placing absolute or unchecked power in the hands of whichever fallible human beings happen to rule at any given time”. Simply put, “constitutional government limits us in order to free us”.

It is through this philosophical lens, and not just in the light of the lens of impending elections, that we should view the delays in the process that ultimately led to Magashule being propelled from a high window. In retrospect, Magashule never posed a real threat to Ramaphosa. He boasted few supporters in the national executive committee who were willing even to speak out in his defence.

Simply kicking Magashule out could have been achieved relatively quickly. Ramaphosa’s goal has been more ambitious: to use Magashule’s removal to bake a new rule of conduct into the practices of the ANC. Now, and into the future, if you are charged you must step aside.

For many years the attentions of the criminal justice system have been viewed as a mild inconvenience by errant political leaders. Suddenly the decisions of the National Prosecuting Authority pose an existential threat to the careers of ANC office-holders.

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

Time to end cadre deployment

ANTHONY BUTLER: At best, cadre deployment was a transitional instrument whose time has passed

It might be a good idea in principle but it has been a disaster in practice

First published in BL PREMIUM

29 APRIL 2021

President Cyril Ramaphosa was unfortunately ambivalent about cadre deployment at his appearance before the Zondo commission of inquiry this week. He argued that deployment “cannot be faulted in principle”, while conceding that there are “weaknesses in its practical implementation”.

He is surely right that politicisation is unavoidable and in respects desirable. Public servants cannot help but bring values, intellectual assumptions and personal networks to their roles. In addition, a democratic system requires a public service that is responsive to the policy preferences of a properly elected government.

If cadre deployment is a good idea in principle, however, there is no escaping that it has been a disaster in practice. Drawing selectively on the findings of an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study, Ramaphosa ignored conclusive evidence from the same body that unchecked conflicts of interest, and a lack of transparency in appointments, deeply damage the operations of the state.

Public service & administration minister Senzo Mchunu this week told a conference of the government and public policy think-tank that public perceptions of incompetence, poor productivity, lethargy and unprofessional conduct are “not wrong”. More than a third of civil servants occupy positions they are demonstrably not qualified for.

Meanwhile, the boards of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and government agencies have been stuffed with an array of disreputable deployees, from Brian Molefe to Dudu Myeni and Arthur Fraser. Ramaphosa conceded to the commission of inquiry that disastrous appointments have been made, but he suggested this was not a result of the deployment process. In fact responsibility lies with Jacob Zuma, who purportedly circumvented the deployment committee of which Ramaphosa was the chair.

There is surely a deeper problem with deployment that needs to be confronted honestly. The policy was always designed to do more than help overhaul the apartheid state. Underlying it was a pseudo-Marxist assumption that a “capitalist state” is predisposed to service the interests of the owners of capital. It is therefore a hostile terrain that must be occupied, an instrument whose “levers of power” must be “seized”.

The ANC also belittled the institutions of “bourgeois democracy” — parliament, the media, civil society organisations and mechanisms of intrastate accountability — that are in fact essential if corruption is to be contained. The ANC’s ambivalence about stable protections for public service impartiality created space for cycles to build up between deployment, access to state resources and donations to the party or its factions.

Meanwhile, a party fundraiser, Valli Moosa, was deployed in the mid-2000s to chair Eskom, at exactly the moment an ANC-aligned investment vehicle, Chancellor House, secured enormous remunerative contracts from the parastatal. This helped make legitimate what soon became a systematic looting of SOEs.

Money flows and deployments have become systemically linked, and donations have become de facto kickbacks. This system has matured, and its reach has extended beyond tender and audit committees to embrace external auditors and intrastate accountability mechanisms.

Surely it is time for deployment to be retired as a philosophy and as a practice. At best, it was a transitional instrument whose rationale and time have passed. Ramaphosa’s position, however, is to hedge. He has promised to establish an “SOE council”, which will supposedly improve governance and oversee appointment processes.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) will be empowered to play a new role in the appointment of senior national and provincial officials. There is also talk of a new head of the public service to oversee bureaucrats’ career progression in a “professionalised” state.

This raises one obvious question: how can we be sure the new parastatal council, the enhanced PSC, and the fresh civil service head, will perform their roles in a principled way? Don’t worry, is Ramaphosa’s answer. The deployment committee will see to it that in all three cases the best people for the job will be appointed.

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

Unshackle Gauteng and the Western Cape so that they can grow

ANTHONY BUTLER: Many fantasies about changing SA’s provincial layout

 BL PREMIUM 15 APRIL 2021

ANTHONY BUTLER

SA is a unitary state rather than a federation. We elect provincial parliaments with great solemnity, and blue light convoys choke the streets of our provincial capitals, but provinces do not much pass laws, levy taxes or control their own budgets. Policy is made at the centre and provinces are hooked up to a drip-feed of national resources.

Fantasies circulate about how this might change. Well-meaning development specialists say we can abolish provinces altogether. Secessionists say provinces can simply opt out of the republic. A larger group of dreamers in the ANC yearn for the day when “certain provinces” can be merged with their neighbours.

None of this will happen, because vast vested interests are now embedded in our system of provincial government. The provinces have also effectively accommodated the cultural and ethnic peculiarities of different regions within a single system of government.

The trouble is that this system is a brake on economic development. All nine provinces are run in accordance with a single legislative and regulatory template, designed primarily to save the weaker provinces from collapse.

Meanwhile, two provinces, Gauteng and Western Cape, contribute half of national GDP and host half of registered income taxpayers. They enjoy younger and better educated populations and deliver public services with greater effect.

It is not polite to say so, but seven of the provinces are poorly run, in part because of their historical legacies, such as the former bantustans. The slowest hold back the fastest in all societies.

Some countries have resorted to “asymmetric federalism”, in which the constituent units of a federation enjoy different powers, in line with their capabilities and needs. Unitary systems such as ours can implement asymmetrical devolution, in which variable powers are delegated by the national government to particular provinces and cities on a qualified and reversible basis.

SA’s Brics partners China, India, and Russia have asymmetric mechanisms. China’s provinces, autonomous regions and special administrative regions have functions tailored to their practical developmental needs, as well as to their political circumstances. India, for its part, has experimented for decades with unique arrangements for subnational regions.

Speaking at the Cape Town Press Club this week, Western Cape premier Alan Winde argued that we need greater provincial powers in SA. He noted that his province has similar needs and challenges to Gauteng’s.

These two provinces have already forged ahead in the implementation of health and education policies, and in fields such as investment promotion. When it comes to housing, the government is using forms of conditionality that empower capable municipalities to take greater control.

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 crisis has shown that fast-growing and innovative provinces can bring benefits to their neighbours. Gauteng and the Western Cape, however, both need fresh powers to create integrated transport systems out of today’s multilevel chaos.

While there are serious risks that provincial police services would be captured by shady politicians, provinces that can run their own law-and-order systems effectively should not be stopped from doing so.

In the energy and broader infrastructure sectors, national governance frameworks appropriate to the coal economy of the 20th century need to be updated for the technologies of a more decentralised world.

Some caution is in order: the special powers delegated to the Basque and Catalan regions of Spain, for example, or to Scotland in the UK, have solved problems but created others. Self-government can easily tip into ethnic separatism.

Moreover, a fresh intergovernmental contract would have to accompany asymmetric devolution in SA. The gains to autonomous and fast-growing provinces would need to be transparently shared with their less advantaged counterparts.

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