The problem with symbolic policies

ANTHONY BUTLER: Symbolic policy is the last resort of the shambolic minister

First published in BusinessLive 2 September 2021

Observers of SA politics have become sadly accustomed to symbolic policies. These ostensible proposals are designed to make ministers look good, even when they aren’t actually doing anything.

Fikile Mbalula is one master of the art. In 2015 the then sports minister launched a bid for SA to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Durban. This was explicitly framed as a stepping stone to a 2024 Olympic Games.

The Soccer World Cup had been a financial disaster, of course, but SA had gotten it done: the officials, players and fans were distributed around the country in various white elephant stadiums, connected to now stranded transport infrastructure.

Multidiscipline events such as the Olympics, in contrast, are monsters: they place almost impossible demands on a single host city, and can drain a national fiscus for decades.

The purpose of Mbalula’s Commonwealth bid was certainly not to secure the right to host the Games, and later the Olympics. Heaven forbid! Its goal was to place the minister himself in a role he craved: friend of the new ANC elite in KwaZulu-Natal, and potential disburser of local pork and patronage, all of it sourced from the national fiscus.

Recent debate over a basic income grant (BIG) has also been primarily symbolic. Given the lack of BIG experiments in other countries and the technical character of social protection policy, casting moral aspersions on opponents has been the order of the day. Some BIG proponents have suggested those opposing the “policy proposal” are simply heartless, or fail to understand the real lives and experiences of the poor.

Incoming finance minister Enoch Godongwana, meanwhile, castigated BIG supporters as “white liberals who think that every kid or black person must be kept in perpetual dependence through grants”. Understandably, one upper middle class white liberal social activist, Neil Coleman, responded in an agitated manner on social media, contending that BIG is indeed a good idea and providing hard evidence that his list of people in favour of the policy is far longer than his list of people opposing it.

The recent “flash-card” green paper on social assistance, briefly waved about and then withdrawn by social development minister Lindiwe Zulu, was a cut-and-paste document symbolically showcasing the minister’s dedication to the interests of the poor. If she had been sacked in the recent cabinet reshuffle, it would have been used as evidence that she would never bow to the dictates of white monopoly capital.

Mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe’s decision to embark on the procurement of 2,500MW of nuclear energy also has all the hallmarks of symbolic policy. Nobody believes the power plants will actually be built, and analysts have been left scratching their heads. Is this about the coal lobby, or perhaps a Russian microchip implanted in deputy president David Mabuza’s skull? Or does it just reflect the “commission fees” associated with this anachronistic industry?

Watching our political leaders play the symbolic policy game can be entertaining, but the endless fakery carries real costs. Democratic politics is damaged when ministers continue to advance policies when — or even because — they know they will not be implemented.

Moreover, when impractical policy dreams fail to materialise it isn’t the politicians who catch the flack: it is the Treasury. Mbalula’s Commonwealth dream — and no doubt his little heart — were shattered by the Treasury’s refusal to sign open-ended funding guarantees. It will be the same story, we can be sure, when it comes to BIG, social security programmes and nuclear procurement.

Worst of all, the fact that so many policies are duds, and deliberately so, means real policy reforms lose credibility. So, there is a new policy on self-generation of electricity. But is there really? 

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

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