Business Day

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.

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