Mantashe’s reminder about ANC clientelism

ANTHONY BUTLER: Clean streets, coalitions and impenetrable polls

First published in BusinessLive


Guessing the outcome of elections is always a mug’s game. But the results of this year’s local government elections are the hardest to predict in recent times.

We have endured two years of Covid-19 lockdown troubles and human tragedies. Each of the big parties seems to be on its own slow-motion suicide mission.

The electorate is tiring of the notion that the Good ANC needs voters’ support if the Bad ANC is to be vanquished. Municipal services are worsening in full view of voters.

The DA has a good story to tell about local governance. It can point to cleanish streets and only mildly stagnant waters in the Western Cape and Midvaal. Its plan to Eskom-proof six Western Cape municipalities is quite clever.

But failed experiments in coalition government in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay are still fresh in voters’ minds. The bungled removal of party leader Mmusi Maimane left residues of scepticism.

The EFF, flush with cash, might capitalise on the anger of pandemic times. But has their macho posturing softened enough to tap the 55% of registered voters who are women?

When the realities of coalition politics kick in after the election the ANC has the ultimate conciliator, Cyril Ramaphosa, as its dealmaker. Chastened by post-2016 coalition experiences, the DA wants prenuptial agreements with potential suitors that will be hard to strike.

The ANC has natural if unreliable coalition partners, including the externalised faction of the movement labelled EFF. The red berets’ “radical policy” will reap some votes the ANC has lost. When push comes to shove, the EFF’s commissars will trade votes for power.

The DA has adopted a similar strategy, with external factions free to harvest the rewards of identity politics that a liberal party cannot openly champion. The Cape Independence Party is apparently punting a restoration of coloured and white labour preference policies. The Freedom Front Plus, fielding candidates in more than 3,000 wards, will likewise suck in former DA voters and deliver their mandates to John Steenhuisen’s formidable coalition machine.

In Gauteng, ActionSA’s human dynamo, Hermann Mashaba, has a cut-and-paste DA manifesto. His strategy, however, is “DA Plus”, the plus being an open xenophobia that will deliver voters that liberals cannot openly pursue.

However, the real key to the election was revealed by the ANC’s venerable chair, Gwede Mantashe, in his superficially incoherent and rambling remarks at the manifesto launch of the liberation movement in Pretoria’s Church Square on Monday evening.

Ramaphosa had already made a number of dull commitments, including a promise that the ANC would promote “the unrestricted development of urban and pavement gardens where crops can be planted to increase food security”. The president also sincerely expressed his hopes that former president Jacob Zuma would enjoy a speedy recovery from his medical ailments, a sentiment all citizens no doubt share.

But it was Mantashe who offered a pellucid analysis of the situation facing ordinary voters. “You don’t vote DA to power and insult the ANC”, he observed. “It doesn’t work that way.”

Politics in SA involves an exchange of goods for political support — and it is only the ANC that can deliver those goods across almost all of the country. Only those who vote for the liberation movement, Mantashe claimed, “acquire the right to insult and shout at the ANC at the height of your voice”. Citizens who do not “vote correctly” will never be heard.

The outcome of the election will turn, in large measure, on how many ANC voters will still accept the terms of this unholy contract, in which loyalty provides the only prospect of political voice and access to public resources.

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

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.

We need more trust and better communications for vaccine rollout success

ANTHONY BUTLER: A new apartheid along the vaccination divide looms

Politicians must come on board the campaign using Limpopo as example

First published in BL PREMIUM 19 AUGUST 2021

The cabinet’s decision to approve the Covid-19 vaccination of 18-year-olds may have lifted the spirits of some younger people. In truth it is a sign of serious problems in the vaccination programme. Daily jabs have slumped far below the 300,000 per day target. More than half of over-60s have had full or partial vaccination, but the upward momentum has gone. As the government dropped through the age ranges, fresh take-up was disappointing.

The age-based approach was sensible, targeting those most likely to fall seriously ill and rectifying some of the inequality of access that typifies the allocation of scarce health resources. After all, this virus cannot be managed by granting privileged vaccine access to the rich, skilled workers or powerful public sector employees alone.

The poor, the less educated, those living in rural areas and the old need to be reached, not just for their personal wellbeing but because society as a whole depends on high and broad uptake to control the pandemic. Workplace vaccinations, in factories, offices, farms and mines, will drive up overall numbers, but considerations of age-based vulnerability and broader equity cannot be allowed to disappear.

Bringing down access ages boosts numbers for a week or two, but the government needs to do something new to achieve sustainable growth in the reach and efficacy of the programme. Private sector sites are attracting vaccine recipients, but their commitment in principle to free and open access for all needs to be translated into actual vaccinations in practice for non-medical aid scheme members.

Government officials have proved quite innovative when it comes to logistical and infrastructure challenges, and they may soon bring mobile vaccination units to social grant payment centres and local government offices. However, the key problems concern matters of public persuasion and trust, rather than those of delivery infrastructure.

As the wealthy, educated and powerful have become vaccinated, their perceptions of the unvaccinated have become increasingly hostile. Drawing their lessons from countries with very high levels of vaccine uptake in North America and the EU, they have begun to castigate the unvaccinated, describing them as self-excluding or as vaccine resisters.

The wealthy exhibit an alarming tendency to view their own good fortune as a well-deserved reward for intrinsic merit. Unless stopped some of them will try to secure legal mandates for new forms of social exclusion, including “vaccine passports” for shopping malls, restaurants, entertainment venues and transport systems. Such compulsion would not be welcome in a society already marked by widespread marginalisation, and it would further reduce the resource of public trust on which government will depend in the years ahead.

We can instead learn from the frontrunners in the persuasion stakes. Limpopo has apparently engaged traditional leaders, health practitioners and religious figures successfully, to sway public opinion in favour of vaccination. In urban areas, a wider range of sporting and cultural leaders and other role models can surely be brought on board. We still do not have clear and simple messages widely and repeatedly expressed in all of the country’s languages.

The Government Communications and Information Service has brought together civil society coalitions, communications professionals, business groups and labour organisations for weekly meetings in an attempt to forge a more successful vaccine communications strategy. This is a good start.

Given the unfortunate disappearance of the department of health’s ear-marked funding for this purpose, a modest fresh budget allocation would help. Equally important, however, is the fuller engagement of our most senior political leaders. They should apply themselves to the vaccine campaign as if it were an election campaign on which their personal political futures depended.

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

Enough conspiracy theories

ANTHONY BUTLER: Politicians abuse our tendency to assume that big events have big causes

Loosely co-ordinated violence in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng does not equal an insurrection

First published in BusinessLive Premium 5 August 2021.

Ten years ago this week a 29-year-old man, Mark Duggan, was shot dead by police in Tottenham Hale, north London. In the days that followed civil unrest spread to various London boroughs and then engulfed cities as far afield as Bristol, Coventry, Liverpool and Manchester.

Looters posed for pictures with toasters and hairdryers. Community protection groups defended shops with baseball bats. When the smoke cleared five people were dead, 2,500 businesses had been looted, and property damage totalled more than £200m.

Shock was replaced by a yearning to know why these events unfolded. It is human, though incorrect, to assume that big events have big causes. People wanted somebody to blame. Leftists blamed government austerity and heavy-handed policing. The prime minister of the day opted for criminality, “pure and simple”. The Right fingered gangs and anarchist groups for spreading unrest from city to city.

The scale of recent events in SA dwarfs anything seen in England a decade ago, and an even stronger yearning for a compelling narrative exists. The hot air we have been subjected to — about insurrection, counterrevolution and plotting — is a symptom of our disorientation.

There is no doubt that a range of actors promoted violence, arson and theft. They included construction mafias, extortion rackets run by pseudo-military veterans, “business forums”, criminal gangs and politicians facing corruption charges. 

Numerous events also exhibited planning: warehouse break-ins, looter transport, co-ordinated arterial road blockages and targeted social media drives. Whether strategic points and critical infrastructure were also scheduled for attack, as the security cluster maintains, remains unclear.

One cognitive ability — and disability — of our species is pattern recognition. We take distinct actions and events and link them up into a single story of causes and effects. We are often wrong.

During the unrest, groups loosely co-ordinated their actions, especially once disturbances were under way. But we do not have evidence of “an insurrection”, still less of any “ultimate objective”, such as the attempted overthrow of democracy or removal of the president.

Imitation and opportunism drove the widespread looting, without which we would not even be considering these events today. Were there 12 “instigators” or 12 “masterminds”, as politicians and journalists have claimed?

Did 12 Twitter accounts really “instigate the violence”? Of course not. This is theological mumbo-jumbo that belongs alongside the 12 cakes in the Tabernacle or the 12 fruits borne by the Tree of Life.

To the degree that actors and objectives came together, they did so in the broad tent that is the ANC of KwaZulu-Natal. Politicians, mafias and organised criminals in that province have long since disproved former US president Lyndon B Johnson’s maxim: they are all inside the tent but they are still pissing.

While President Cyril Ramaphosa is not especially popular in KwaZulu-Natal, the provincial ANC did not vote on ethnic lines at Nasrec in 2017. The Zulu royal house defended the constitutional order. 

The terminology of “tribalism”, like that of instigators and insurrectionists, grows out of conspiracy thinking. The idea that events result from a plot by sinister groups is most often an act of faith that helps us cope with uncertainty.

The best reporters cognitively process information about many actors and events, their minds searching for connections and conspiracies. When our newshounds’ theories are proved correct — which they often are — this becomes known as investigative journalism.

Business people likewise abhor uncertainty and pay risk consultants to translate possibilities into probabilities, and uncertainties into priceable risks. Sometimes they would be better off consulting astrologers.

The real problem, of course, is politicians. They seek personal and partisan advantage, playing on our cognitive deficiencies to shape who we praise and who we blame. We shouldn’t let them.

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

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


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.