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.

Getting off the ground

ANTHONY BUTLER: Shooting for the moon is a pie in the sky goal for SA politics

Desperate governments tend to hire advisers who will tell them what they want to hear, and Mariana Mazzucato has our government’s ear

 First published in BusinessLive

2 APRIL 2021

We all agree that the presidential economic advisory council shouldn’t just be a talking shop. It is less clear whether it should directly challenge the conventional assumptions of the president and his ministers, or instead accept — and merely refine — the prevailing ideas of those in power.

Cynics have long embraced a general rule about the role of ideas in political life. Politicians do not dispassionately seek out the truth or, indeed, consistently recall that such a concept exists. Instead, they search for theories — and academic advisers — that tell them what they want to hear.

In this way their politically convenient programmes can be presented as the outcomes of a process of principled reasoning, purportedly built on robust intellectual foundations.

A president suffering from fiscal incontinence — perhaps because unions and special interest groups are breathing down his neck — can recruit a modern monetary theorist to explain why his actions are justified. Advisers to a desperate government that wants to crank up the banknote printing presses can seek out intellectual justifications for revoking central bank independence.

The most high profile international member of the presidential economic advisory council, Prof Mariana Mazzucato, founding director of an institute for innovation at University College London, provides an interesting test case for this theory about the role of ideas.

Some warning signs accompanied Mazzucato’s recruitment. Apparently, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan sought her out after reading her well-regarded book on the “entrepreneurial state”. Ominously, her ideas also struck a chord with trade, industry and competition minister Ebrahim Patel. Introduced to President Cyril Ramaphosa at a Davos dinner, she was apparently penciled in there and then for an advisory council role.

Unsurprisingly, such a recruitment methodology can entrench the familiar pathology of politicians being told only what they want to hear. There may be a Mazzucato effect, in addition, which magnifies her influence: her arguments are extremely well-organised, and they are unusually powerfully expressed.

In a recently published book, Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism, she revisits her earlier claims about state-led innovation in the post-war US. But this is also a more ambitious effort “to rethink capitalism through rethinking the state”, which captures some of the anti-capitalist spirit of the times.

She points to the role of the state in driving “game-changing” breakthroughs in technology-based businesses, highlighting the dependence of companies such as Apple on prior state-funded research, in the internet, programming languages, and voice-activated systems, among many others. Google’s search algorithm and the most profitable modern medicines alike, she shows, grew out of state-funded projects.

Mazzucato methodically debunks a myth prevalent in the US, and other parts of the global Anglosphere, that the private sector is good and the public bad. She also powerfully condemns the way risk has been socialised by the state while rewards have been privatised by tax-dodging beneficiary corporations.

Her signature theme is that the state should organise its interventions around “grand challenges”. For her, the 1960s Apollo programme is the archetypal “moonshot”, an inspirational mission that created not just new technologies but also new markets and new human possibilities.

Today’s grand challenges include climate change, the amelioration of global poverty, gender inequality, hunger, and deficiencies in the provision of basic education and health. Mazzucato concedes that these goals are “even more challenging than the moon landing”. This is something of an understatement. But her insistence that these challenges require concerted action is important and undeniable.

Mazzucato’s selection bias, however, represents a serious flaw of method, one she shares with “developmental state” proponents: she cherry-picks state-driven interventions that “worked” and ignores similar interventions that didn’t. (Those who believe the moon landings were a colossal waste of time and resources, driven by mindless superpower rivalry, are not entertained at all.)

She does not reflect on the failures, such as the 1970s US war on cancer, designed precisely to replicate the alleged successes of Apollo, let alone the myriad disastrous developmental state interventions that scarred many economies, north and south, across the post-war period.

Giving politicians leeway to engage in “moonshot” programmes has often been an invitation for them to spread patronage and secure short term political advantage. Today’s “strongman” leaders, in particular, are enamoured of visionary initiatives, or great leaps forward that embody national virility and symbolise the leader’s position at the vanguard of change.

SA has had its own recent moonshots. For the Fifa Soccer World Cup in 2010, for example, routine state activities such as maintaining energy and communications infrastructure were suspended, while resources were poured into infrastructural white elephants. The event was essentially a nationalist political project, so satisfying to elites that they have been unable to account frankly for dismal balance of costs of benefits it generated.

Former president Jacob Zuma’s proposed Russian nuclear procurement exercise was perhaps another great mission, one that was tragically derailed by counter-revolutionary forces.

In the US, where scepticism about the state is deeply entrenched and acclaim for entrepreneurial genius is naïve and fanciful, Mazzucato no doubt provides a useful corrective to prevailing wisdom, especially among conventional academic economists.

In SA, a “moonshot mentality” is likely to be less benign, liable instead to entrench the reactionary mindsets of some economy cluster ministers, and to embolden them in their many ill-considered interventions.

Privatising SA’s state-owned enterprises, Mazzucato has claimed, will “deprive the state … of an important pool of technical competencies in strategic sectors”. But SAA is not going to the moon. It can’t even get off the ground.

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

Mantashe is in the wrong job

ANTHONY BUTLER: Good ol’ Gwede, an asset to the president, a liability to his portfolio

The energy minister is too invested in coal mining to make the drastic changes needed for stable electricity

First published in BD and BDLive

18 MARCH 2021

What distinguishes finance minister Tito Mboweni from mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe? (No, not that, Tigers. Don’t even go there.)

The pertinent contrast is that Mboweni is mostly blamed for his own decisions. Mantashe, meanwhile, is largely viewed as a proxy for President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Why is Mantashe seen as Ramaphosa’s man? He worked in the mining industry from the age of 20, and ascended quickly in the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) created by Ramaphosa. He rose to national prominence at the watershed Polokwane conference of the ANC in 2007, where he was elected secretary-general of the party.

Mantashe was key to Ramaphosa’s rise to the deputy presidency of the ANC in 2012. Lobbied to join the anti-Jacob Zuma slate at Mangaung, he stuck with the incumbent but used his leverage to advance Ramaphosa’s candidacy.

As party manager in the run-up to the 2017 Nasrec conference Mantashe helped make possible Ramaphosa’s triumph. He also averted an attempt to collapse the conference before its conclusion. At Ramaphosa’s birthday party in November 2017, just a month before the conference, Mantashe was at the aspirant president’s side.

Mantashe seemed an inspired choice as minister responsible for energy policy. But he was quickly bogged down in yesterday’s political challenges, rather than realising today’s technological opportunities.

The Eskom coal supply chain, and the associated trucking industry, offers a roll-call of influential ANC donors. Many of these entrepreneurs are at the centre of the historic process of building a significant black business class in SA. Meanwhile, as deputy president David Mabuza noted in parliament last week, the Eskom workforce has doubled in a decade, while key skills have been lost.

The ANC as a whole is implicated in these dynamics, not least because the disastrous R450bn Medupi and Kusile projects were subverted from their start — in the Thabo Mbeki era — to fund the party and ANC-linked beneficiaries.

A reforming ANC energy minister therefore comes under fire from all sides. This week the NUM condemned proposals to trim the Eskom workforce by a mere 4,000 — and this in the middle of an unprecedented economic crisis.

Little wonder Mantashe has sometimes grasped at the illusory straw of “clean coal” and averted hard decisions about regulatory reform. While he delays, however, unreliable and costly electricity is painfully reducing investment and jobs. And things will get worse fast.

The coal dependency of the energy economy will make it increasingly hard to service the government’s burgeoning debt, because international bond investors are looking to reduce the carbon intensity of their portfolios. Carbon-linked barriers to exports will follow, not least for the automotive industry.

Meanwhile, in the absence of a managed domestic energy transition we will soon have a stampede. Big cities, big businesses and the wealthy households that cross-subsidise municipal services are starting to migrate off-grid.

Rather than exploiting the financial opportunities presented by the uptake of new technologies, Mantashe resembles the King Canute of energy: an old man trying to hold back the tides. The minister responsible for stabilising Eskom and managing the energy transition needs to be forward-looking rather than a prisoner of the past.

Inexorable change will leave behind casualties, to be sure, among them emerging business people, the coal lobby, elements of organised labour and key party donors. But so long as the minister is seen as Ramaphosa’s proxy, the pain that flows from policy and regulatory change will be laid at the president’s door.

Perhaps one Mboweni is enough for any government, but an energy reform champion who takes responsibility for his own decisions is sorely needed. Mantashe needs a fresh portfolio in which his talents and his proximity to the president represent an asset rather than a liability.

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

Burdens of academic leadership

Spare a thought for the rich and powerful. First published in Business Day, 12 April, 2013.

South African newspapers endlessly lament the travails of the poor. But the burdens under which productive members of society labour merits few column inches. Take the present clamour for self-defeating tax increases. Beyond the moral truism that citizens are entitled to the fruits of their own labour, tax rises deter investment, slow growth and so reduce overall tax receipts.

Although the poor should be incentivised to search for work, the government refuses to dismantle debilitating welfare systems — and it is the rich who have to pay for them. Those who have entrepreneurial drive are meanwhile criticised for using incentives to make themselves work harder.

Businessmen on remuneration committees have even been condemned for rewarding the engineers of growth: themselves. Black businesspeople shoulder even more onerous duties. They are obliged to become rich in the national interest in order to create a “patriotic bourgeoisie”.

In the public sector, the powerful face similar challenges. Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has been forced to relinquish his proletarian lifestyle and to accept the unwelcome trappings of state office. One former trade union leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, this week blamed Nzimande for his ministerial predicament. Before his recent retirement, however, Vavi was himself the beneficiary of generous trade union remuneration policies.

In the past, the academic community has remained above, or perhaps below, the neoliberal system (albeit not altogether voluntarily). Members of Wits University’s so-called “Parkview proletariat”, for example, have for decades generated knowledge of incalculable value before retiring to humble dwellings at the end of the working day, or indeed earlier. Wits’s new vice-chancellor, Adam Habib, exemplifies such selflessness and argues that “empathy for the poor should be part of our humanity” — a remark that recalls former US president George Bush’s observation that he “knows how hard it is for you to put food on your family”.

Today, however, the obligation to allocate scarce skills in the interests of the nation has forced senior academics in “formerly Afrikaans” universities to create large consulting companies to deliver services to the state.

In the formerly liberal universities, at least, “academic freedom” still reigns supreme. English-speaking scholars, unlike their Afrikaner counterparts, refuse to bow down to public authority or to act voluntarily as instruments of the state: they have to be paid to do this. Despite these underlying differences in philosophy, therefore, the outcome is much the same: some academics are compelled in the national interest to accept additional remuneration that they do not want.

Now Habib has become embroiled in a controversy about proposed renovations to his official residence, Savernake. This Randlord’s palace, owned by the Price Family Trust, has been made available to Wits on the understanding that the university will maintain it. The agreement stipulates that the mansion will revert to the trust if the vice-chancellor does not reside there. “This,” Habib has explained, “is why Wits has insisted in my case, and all others before me, that the vice-chancellor lives in the residence.”

Inconveniently, the mansion is a “heritage house” (the cultural equivalent of a National Key Point) and it therefore cannot be equipped with Wits office furniture and blue carpet tiles by the university maintenance department. Just as the government has paid for “security upgrades” at Nkandla, so Wits must now pay more than R10m to renovate Savernake, and all this to imprison the unfortunate vice-chancellor in a vulgar bourgeois environment that he abhors.

Taxes. Virtual imprisonment. Victimisation of the rich and powerful. When will it all end? The fad of democracy has made it all but impossible for the rich to speak out. As former US vice-president Dan Quayle once observed of his own right-thinking but increasingly unpopular party: “Republicans have been accused of abandoning the poor. It’s the other way around. They never vote for us.”

  • Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town. This article was published on Business Day.

Who runs the DA? And how will it form coalitions?

ANTHONY BUTLER: Does a rational centre exist anywhere in SA?

The empirical evidence has not been very promising, so far

First published in BusinessLive

5 MARCH 2021

It has been a confusing week for observers of the DA. The party has been in the doldrums since 2019, when the managed leadership transition from federal leader Mmusi Maimane to John Steenhuisen generated unexpected fallout.

The membership’s recent endorsement of core liberal principles and internal organisational reforms to enhance campaign effectiveness, suggested the party was on the road to partial recovery.

However, last weekend the Sunday Times published a controversial interview with Steenhuisen, which suggested the new leader would support President Cyril Ramaphosa in any vote of no confidence in the National Assembly, and that Steenhuisen would be open to a coalition with a Ramaphosa-led ANC in 2024 should national elections result in a hung parliament. The DA would not, however, join forces with deputy president David Mabuza or ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule.

Steenhuisen based his analysis on familiar DA narratives about an impending “realignment around the political centre”. These are not in themselves controversial or new. In 2016, for example, former leader Maimane stated that ANC reformers would soon jump ship to the DA.

Why, then, did an agitated Steenhuisen accuse the Sunday Times of misrepresenting his position, and issue a lengthy “clarification” on Wednesday? Unlike Sunday’s Steenhuisen, Wednesday’s version was adamant that there is no “good ANC”. He was, moreover, no longer soft on Ramaphosa, who “talks reform but walks socialism, either because he truly is a socialist at heart, or because it is the only way to keep the ANC united”.

In a video podcast called Inside Track, released later that day, Steenhuisen was joined by DA federal council chair Helen Zille to impart an “official version” to apparently concerned activists. 

The optics were not ideal from the ostensible party leader’s point of view. Steenhuisen delivered a few short remarks before Zille stood up, produced a whiteboard and marker pens, and delivered a lecture on party realignment. This seemed to be addressed to Steenhuisen as much as to the viewers.

The two leaders of the DA were at least in agreement about one thing: that there is a “rational centre” in SA politics, to which the DA can appeal, located not just in the parliamentary caucuses of the main political parties but also in the wider electorate. This phrase originated from ANC policy guru Joel Netshitenzhe, who used it to explain the resilience of the liberation movement in the face of its own self-destructive tendencies.

Whether such a rational centre actually exists — within the ANC, the DA, parliament, or the wider society — remains a matter for conjecture. The empirical evidence is not promising, so far, in any of these settings. More usefully, the DA has recognised the importance of “principles” in the building of coalitions. The two leaders insisted the party will be “the core” of an impending party realignment, and the “anchor tenant” in any coalitions it builds.

Principle, not expediency, will be their guide. Every coalition agreement will set out core objectives and “red lines”, including noninterference in appointments and tenders. All of which leaves a couple of big questions hanging for the 2021 and 2024 elections. How will the DA respond this year if plausible local government coalition partners refuse to commit to the written agreements it proposes, or sign them in evident bad faith?

Perhaps more importantly, Steenhuisen has rejected national deal-making with Magashule or Mabuza in 2024. But these are yesterday’s men, who are never going to become ANC president. Journalists and activists may soon ask the party’s leaders whether the DA is willing to work with more credible Ramaphosa successors, notably Paul Mashatile and Zweli Mkhize. And who exactly in the DA leadership will decide, Zille or Steenhuisen?

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