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

What kind of state are we in?

ANTHONY BUTLER: In search of a state that failed even to exist

First published in BL PREMIUM

22 JULY 2021

We know we’re in a bit of a state, but what kind of state are we in?

Before 1994 South Africans lived in a pariah state. Soon experts warned the new SA might become a one-party state. Then the ANC decided we were a developmental state. National planning commissioners later proposed a capable state.

Last year matters got worse. The Eunomix consultancy warned of SA’s precipitous decline into a “failed state” by 2030. This concept has been widely embraced in the aftermath of last week’s tragic events, which have entertainingly been described by President Cyril Ramaphosa as a planned insurrection. Opposition leader John Steenhuisen claimed co-ordinated looting could “accelerate SA’s descent to a failed state”.

The realities of a weak tax system, porous borders, corruption and large scale criminality are real enough, but the label “failed state” is misleading. The “modern state” that is purportedly in danger of failing has never existed here. It is an idea — a fantasy — drawn from continental Europe and exported, imposed or emulated around the world across the 20th century.

Our ideas about the state mostly come from late 19th century Germans: little wonder, then, that they capture the German state better than they capture ours. Karl Marx famously popularised the idea that the capitalist state cannot help but maximise relentless profit-making by property owners. Try telling SA’s business people that this is what their “capitalist state” does.

An even cleverer German, Max Weber, defined the state as “a compulsory association which organises domination”. Such a state claims “a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence” in a territory. Visitors to Germany today can observe just such control over a territory, with effective taxation and mechanisms for the control of crime.

Such ideas do not capture — and have never captured — the realities in SA or most of the global South. Where Business Day readers live and work ADT and its equivalents possess a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. Elsewhere, “community policing” and vigilante groups hold sway.

Control of the territory? People move into and out of the country quite freely, and so-called “traditional leaders” exercise power with little regard to the supreme law that purportedly governs the state.

Debates about state failure can be a distraction from the more fruitful debates in which South Africans might engage. Three dimensions of the nation’s predicament are especially obscured by the failed state narrative.

First, we cannot have both a developmental state and a welfare state. Either we invest in the future, or we continue to devote a growing share of available resources to consumption, most particularly in an irreversible growth in our social protection systems.

Second, citizens and political leaders must decide whether an amended version of Western-derived constitutional democracy will work here. Anticolonial sentiment and decolonial analysis have been used to justify both apartheid-era traditional leadership and the hazardous institutional prescriptions of the Chinese party-state. Is either of these really what SA needs?

Finally, we have to embrace or reject what DA policy head Gwen Ngwenya illuminatingly calls the private “parallel state”. The wealthy work online, or in fortified business parks and office blocks. They shop in suburban malls from which poor citizens are excluded by poverty and private security forces.

Gated “privatopias”, surrounded by electrified fences, allow increasing numbers of residents to enjoy private health-care, gyms, shops and restaurants. Predominantly white in the past, these communities are increasingly multiracial.

Is the privatisation of apartheid more acceptable when apartness is defined by class rather than by race?

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

Flattery, fawning and brown-nosing from the SACP

ANTHONY BUTLER: China Express could turn out to be a slow boat

First published in BL PREMIUM

08 JULY 2021

Recent celebrations of the centenary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) tell us something significant about the evolving relationship between SA and the People’s Republic of China.

The facts on the ground do not suggest an ideological love-in is in order. According to Harvard Growth Lab, China is a growing trade partner of SA, taking perhaps 16% of our exports, but it remains far less important than the EU. Even outside the EU, India, Japan and the UK together buy more SA goods and services than China.

SA Reserve Bank data suggests China isn’t a major investor either, accounting for less than 5% of foreign investment stock. Meanwhile, SA accounts for just 0.67% of Chinese exports, ranking alongside countries such as Egypt and Nigeria in their eyes.

China is also quite poor, with only a marginally higher per capita income than SA’s. Even CPC leaders are worried about declining legitimacy as citizens tire of crony capitalism, corruption and the abuse of power by party officials.

But China has been successful at lifting people out of poverty and it has grown fast: SA might become a centre for Chinese businesses in Africa, with Hisense, Huawei, BAIC, Longyuan Power and ICBC already leading the way. Sectors such as tourism and higher education could grow rapidly. The problem is that both countries have “ruling parties” that prefer party-to-party ties to the rule of law.

The Chinese party is not very good at “soft power”. It has an “international liaison” machinery that recruits foreign intellectuals and members of political parties, but less successfully than bourgeois liberal competitors. It is notably coercive in its political practice, its “One China” principle drawing attention to the fact that societies it wishes to destroy, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, are much richer, more successful and more democratic than China.

SA really does not matter much to China. This truth is exemplified by the saga of Xiaomei Havard, who has been mysteriously elevated to an ANC seat in the august chamber of our national legislature. This substandard deployee said  that she had made significant donations to ANC-aligned organisations. “Each time it is different. Maybe this time they want R8,000, next time R15,000 … Maybe, from all of them, R2m to R4m.”

The fraternity between the ANC and the CPC was on full display at a recent online celebration of the centenaries of the CPC and the SACP, apparently organised by prominent “businessperson” and newspaper proprietor Iqbal Surve, who told participants he visited China “20 times in the past decade”.

The substance of the consensus between the two parties quickly became clear. The Chinese ambassador to SA, Chen Xiaodong, praised the accomplishments of the CPC at some length, and when their turn came SACP speakers were equally effusive with regard to the CPC’s achievements. They used rhetorical and diplomatic techniques ranging from flattery (former president Kgalema Motlanthe), and fawning (SACP chair Paul Mashatile), to brown-nosing (Solly Mapaila). Sadly, nobody could think of anything good to say about the SACP.

The Chinese ambassador did observe that China-SA diplomatic relations “have made a significant leap from a partnership and a strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership”. Presumably this is a good thing.

But the ambassador implied China is no longer interested in selling us trains. Rather it has entered a “new stage of development”, in which it is “just like a China Express”, with “stronger power and greater capacity that is speeding up on a journey toward new development goals … We welcome SA and other African countries on board the upgraded China Express to achieve win-win co-operation and high-quality common development.”

Now that’s something to look forward to.

Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

The politics of vaccine rationing

ANTHONY BUTLER: Why jab teachers, who are at less risk than taxi drivers?

Some will view this as successful blackmail by the powerful SA Democratic Teachers Union

 First published in BusinessLive PREMIUM

24 JUNE 2021

Is the government’s plan to ration Covid-19 vaccines falling apart? SA faces extreme vaccine scarcity, and the department of health has only a vague framework for allocation. In phase one, 1-million health workers were to be vaccinated, followed by the current second phase, in which 16.5-million over-60s and other vulnerable groups are due to receive protection. The third phase should cover a residual 20-million.

The government has rightly been keen to avoid rationing on the basis of power and money. In the early years of the HIV/Aids pandemic treatments went to those with private medical insurance, key workers in large companies, and public servants with medical aid. City-dwellers and the middle classes were advantaged. The less educated, the poor, and those living in rural areas were in effect excluded.

When it comes to Covid-19 vaccines the advantages of the wealthy have been partially neutralised by government controls. The priority initially given to the elderly was fully justified. The young, after all, are mostly unaffected by the virus, and almost all countries have placed protection of the old at the heart of their vaccination strategies. Governments may also prioritise people who are especially open to infection, those whose vaccination benefits the whole of society because they are potential spreaders of the virus, and those who allegedly play some “essential” or “critical” role.

This is where the trouble begins. The list of “essential workers” always starts with doctors and nurses because they are directly exposed to the virus. Hospital cleaners, porters and ambulance drivers are even more vulnerable. Beyond the health system, critical worker lists around the world have expanded in various directions. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention included the police, firefighters and care home workers. Other governments have listed staff in transport, waste management, water delivery, electricity, logistics, communications, retail, pharmaceuticals and finance.

In SA, we have placed teachers at the front of the queue. Yet children do not pose a high transmission risk, and teachers may be more likely to be infected at home than at school. Most of them are too young to fall seriously ill, and older members of the profession can be catered for through age-based rationing. Why are we taking vaccines from over-60s who may die — and overwhelm our health system along the way — and giving them to young teachers? Most of the arguments presented — children being seriously disadvantaged by school closures and long-term inequality effects — concern the refusal of teachers to return to the classroom.

Some citizens will be sympathetic. Other organised interest groups, however, will view this as successful blackmail. The SA Democratic Teachers Union is, after all, the country’s most powerful workers’ organisation. Teachers are privileged, their salaries placing them easily in the top 10% of income earners. Without a clear and transparent justification for vaccine priority, other less well-paid formal sector employees will also demand special treatment: the police, the military, prison guards and frontline public sector workers who interact with the public.

Other groups equally or more exposed to coronavirus infection, such as retail sector employees, restaurant workers, mineworkers and minibus taxi drivers, will want to join the front of the queue. Members of these “aggrieved groups” are starting to believe they deserve priority, and they resent the advantages granted to others. Meanwhile, unvaccinated over-60s are castigated as “self-excluders” from the programme, even if they live in rural areas.

Those worst affected by Covid-19 are not the rich or unionised public sector workers. They are the poor — who cannot isolate, live in high-prevalence communities, share cramped accommodation, use crowded public transport and suffer the comorbidities of poverty — and they are also the old. No allocation system is perfect, but perhaps the government should stop picking beneficiaries and just stick to the principle of rationing by age?

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

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.