Politics of patronage is dealt a blow by Gordhan
LAST week’s budget speech has mostly been discussed in terms of its progressive or conservative tendencies. Liberals have worried that it does not take adequate steps to avoid a debt trap. Others on the left have complained that it does not show enough willingness to take a more active role in development and redistribution. In the process, a more significant intervention has been overlooked.
Good economic policy depends on a state and political leadership that are devoted to developing the necessary policy and to seeing to its effective implementation. Increasingly, this is what we in SA do not have. It is here, however, that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan made his most radical gestures.
What lies at the centre of SA’s malaise? In 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) viewed the state predominantly as the driver of transformative public policy. Now, its leaders and cadres seem better known for their use of the state to distribute government jobs, tenders and other resources through partial political and personal networks.
Contrary to much public debate, governance failures are not simply evidence of moral and other failures within the ANC. More fundamentally, they are the product of the weak institutions that the ANC inherited and the situation within which it has been placed.
The ANC has found itself at the centre of a fatal convergence of a state that is not adequately rule-bound and therefore not insulated from the will of politicians, and of a constituency that does not have historically accumulated resources of education or property. In brief, the rightful advance of the disadvantaged has relied upon the state; those with political and personal weight have sought to use their connections to advance more surely and quickly, and the politicians have been all too able to oblige them.
SAis not unique in having followed this path. To varying degrees, at various times, this has been the case in Southern Europe, 19th-century US, Latin America, most of Africa, and many other countries.
The decline, while historically not uncommon, is nonetheless pernicious. It has meant that political interests increasingly attach less to policy, in the sense of rational transformative plans, than to the jobs, tenders and other partial resources that policy can provide. It has meant that political attention and energy are increasingly directed towards the pursuit of corruption and partial benefit.
The patronage networks that these efforts sustain cut across and complicate solidarities of economic sector, class and nation. The process of policy-making is impeded, and policy is more likely to be inconsistent and imprecise.
If SA seems stuck in a bad place, then these are central reasons for that.
How might we begin to lift ourselves out of the quagmire? Moral appeals are too flimsy. Selective punishments are, well, far too easily selective. If we believe electoral competition will unproblematically bring the ANC to order, we are being naive: parties can appeal to their constituencies in ways other than good governance. Across the country, the ANC has been responding to acute electoral competition in municipalities and provinces through deft allocations of finance and houses and the targeted distribution of extended public works programme jobs. Any other truly popular party is likely to face pressure to do much the same.
In the 20th century, the US put the first nails in the coffin of its spoils system when Theodore Roosevelt expanded the system of competitive examinations. The same strategy was pursued in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Germany, South Korea, Japan and other countries had established competitive examinations before the coming of mass democracy. In other words, bureaucratic solutions are often the first line of defence against seemingly intractable political problems.
It is against this background that we can begin to recognise how profound Gordhan is being. In referring to efforts to overhaul the procurement system, he is striking at a central source of the politics of patronage. It is a vitally important yet ultimately modest step in the right direction. It will remain limited in its effects until there are more robust efforts to professionalise and administratively insulate the recruitment of public servants.
Chipkin is the director of the Public Affairs Research Institute, where Brunette and Tshimomola are researchers. The institute is working with the National Treasury to reform the system of public procurement.