Crises close in

ANTHONY BUTLER: An incoherent welfare state focused on the next ANC conference

That long-range thinking is increasingly absent from SA political life is a cause for worry

First published in BusinessLive

10 MARCH 2022 – 15:45

The economist Rudiger Dornbusch used to offer a cautionary analysis about the onset of economic cataclysm in the contemporary world: “The crisis takes a much longer time coming than you think, and then it happens much faster than you would have thought.” In this he echoed an Ernest Hemingway character in the 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises who famously responded to the question “How did you go bankrupt?” with, “Two ways, gradually and then suddenly”.

There would seem to be a greater than usual trepidation in SA today about the significance of partially interrelated crises that singly concern unemployment and poverty, ethnic and xenophobic tensions, fiscal sustainability and conflict-ridden politics.

Although it is never sensible to rush to conclusions about the trajectory of this notoriously resilient society, it is a matter for concern that long-range thinking is increasingly absent from SA political life. Immediate imperatives exhaust the time and energies of political and business elites. One interpretation is that the ANC is now preoccupied with — and close to being overwhelmed by — the manifestations of unattended long-range problems.

The telescoping of time horizons is most evident with the ANC itself. For almost three decades it served as a stabilising force in post-apartheid SA. It used its dominant position to curtail political conflict and defend unpopular but necessary economic policy positions. As electoral competition has intensified, however, xenophobia, race and economic populism have become instruments of party mobilisation.

Scholar and activist Neville Alexander once observed that policy change is often unavoidably long-term. To improve a basic education system, for example, you need to begin with early childhood development and then nurture a child in fresh ways across all 12 grades of their education. The short term in education policy is a decade. The medium term is a generation.

The ANC still likes to talk long term about policy, but its leaders’ eyes are locked — at best — on the next ANC conference. Its broad governing philosophy ostensibly revolves around an extended but indefinite “national democratic revolution”, but its focus is increasingly shaped by the demands of constituencies seeking consumption spending today.

A decade ago, the creation of the National Planning Commission marked an apparent recommitment to thinking long term, with its promise of diverting consumption spending into investment. In practice, the national plan sits on the shelf, and expenditures on salaries in the public sector and parastatals continue to squeeze investment. A nascent developmental state has been supplanted by an incoherent welfare state.

Meanwhile, the government is reacting with panic to long-range challenges requiring sustained action, apparently unable to negotiate the trade-offs required for energy regime transition. A water system crisis identified two decades ago will soon be upon us. Despite the enormous damage wrought by numerous parastatal debacles, we are trapped in a cycle of short-term bailouts and recapitalisations linked to quickly ditched turnaround plans.

If crisis becomes perpetual and then overwhelming, it will not do so in a linear fashion. SA’s past nondecisions will catch up with its ANC government all of a sudden.

In 1939, Quo Tai-Chi, one of the greatest 20th-century diplomats then serving as the Republic of China’s ambassador to London, gazed at the bright stars above a blacked-out wartime city. Responding to a comment that the sky would soon be dark with enemy bombers, Quo responded, “The sky is already dark with the wings of chickens coming home to roost.”

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Ca

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