There are some things in South Africa that simply refuse to go out of fashion: braais, rugby, soccer, koeksisters, pap en wors … and creating new government policies left, right and centre. Since democracy's birth, we have thought up the most complex economic policies with the intention of creating jobs, growing the economy and, hopefully, in the process eradicating poverty and inequality. This is why policy acronyms, ranging from RDP (Reconstruction and Development Plan), to GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution), are so well known. And now, of course, we have the NDP (National Development Plan).
But while some habits are good for you – who could say no to koeksisters on a Sunday morning? Others are seriously imprudent, like obsessing with policy changes while the poverty, unemployment and inequality indices tell a story of implementation failure. For this reason, it is worth our while to consider a different diagnostic of our most urgent challenge.
The South African state is not fit for purpose. So long as our bureaucracy is inadequately skilled to implement even the best policies, we will never achieve our developmental goals. We need to stop tinkering with policy ideas and build a capable state.
First, I acknowledge that policy debates and policy reviews are necessary. A brains trust within political parties, and within the government, needs to be actively asking itself all the time whether or not a particular policy works or not. This is why in the 1990s, for example, government moved from the socialist RDP document, to the neo-liberal GEAR replacement. The African National Congress made this change upon realising that its liberation struggle ideas were dated.
Still, our macroeconomic policies have, on the whole, been broadly the right ones for an aspirational developing economy, which is why there is little fundamental difference between Mbeki's economic thinking and the thinking in the Zuma government.
Second, it does not follow, however, that just because ideas matter, that the most urgent problems are in the policy space. In our case, we have overinvested in debates about policy, and still spend far too little time thinking through practical questions about the state of the state.
Let me illustrate the problem with an example I experienced firsthand when I was a strategy consultant with McKinsey and Company. One state owned company, company A, had agreed, contractually, to provide another state owned company, company B, with transportation for some of B's goods. A, however, consistently did not deliver the goods on time. And we were called in to help figure out why this was so, and what the solution might be.
After a few months of working closely with both companies, the problem became obvious: the turnaround time for transporting goods from starting point, to destination, and back, was below the optimal time one would expect for the route travelled. The reason for the delay turned out to be simple. Drivers were not adequately scheduled to release one another and so there was no continuous transportation of the goods. There were long stoppages along the way when a driver who had completed a shift simply waited for the replacement driver to relieve him in the middle of nowhere.
The solution is one a primary school learner can tell us: make sure you have a more effective roster for the drivers to relieve one another at the exact change over points at the exact time necessary to ensure the transportation of goods is not interrupted.
But here is the moral of the story. While we as consultants recognised that the state owned companies were in need of organisational and operational re-engineering, and mindset and behavioural changes among staff, the national debate about these companies were couched in policy terms on the front pages of newspapers: “Should we privatise our state owned enterprises?”
It was not surprising that the wrong conversation was taking place between politicians, and within the public space. That is because we are addicted to the language of policy and ideology. It is sexier to write speeches and media stories about ideology and policy differences, than it is to craft a story about how to practically rearrange the furniture within the state in order for the state to be fit for purpose.
Yet we must change the debate focus: policy dialogue must be deprioritised in the national conversation. Instead, we must come to grips with the challenge of making the state capable of delivering “a better life for all”. asa
Author: Eusebius McKaiser, MA, is a political analyst based at the Wits Centre for Ethics.