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Assessing and promoting civil and minority rights in South Africa.

[Source: Business Day Live by Carol Paton.]

Who runs SA? This is a question political commentators like to ask, to which they then reply themselves in a long book. In this case no book is needed — 650 words will be more than enough.

No one runs SA. It is an aircraft in which the pilot has left the cockpit and locked the door behind him. Occasionally, he steps back in to make an urgent correction, but these interventions become increasingly capricious as the flight time begins to run out. But this column is not really about him. So much has been said about the disastrous leadership of Jacob Zuma that the subject is now tiresome. Suffice to say that he has centralised power in his office, using his powers of appointment, in a way that is highly effective in achieving his personal goals, but has had chaotic consequences for the process of governing.

While there have been many casualties of this kind of leadership — the weakening of state institutions and hollowing out of capacity and integrity where it is most needed; the breakdown in the relationship with business and labour — there is now another discernible consequence of Zuma’s power grab. That is the inability of the Cabinet to govern. It too has been shut out of the cockpit.

With the programmatic approach the democratic government once painstakingly constructed, policy-making followed well-worn steps: research, public participation, a policy paper and legislation. Strategic-and budget-planning were also clearly delineated in a six-month cycle, which fed into longer-term planning.

But policy-making nowadays is a free-for-all. Big policies and programmes with profound economic consequences have become ensnared in politics, while their champions look on, submit to political pressure or are strategically ignored. Energy planning is the prime example; the debacle over the release of radio spectrum for broadband services is another.

The government’s energy planners — a pair of engineers based at Eskom, who draw on the work of several external teams and experts — have tried twice now to put a new energy plan on the table. In 2013, their Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which projects demand and costs supply, was spiked by the Department of Energy and never reached the Cabinet. Then, a few months ago, the new attempt at drawing up an IRP was also sent back to the drawing board.

Policy on information technology has run into similar trouble. This time, though, it is officials in the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services who have gone through a policy process only to have it sabotaged at the last minute by the regulator. Now, the Cabinet is to have “a broadband war room” to deliberate on the problem. What happened to the Cabinet process for policy deliberation, in which the lead minister presents his work, based on the shared outlook of the governing party?

In both cases, it is interests — political or commercial or both — that have derailed the process. The energy plan was not pro-nuclear enough; the broadband plan not pro-big business enough. In the past, SA was good at making good policy and only fell down in its implementation. Now it is policy that can’t seem to get done, as politicians, commercial interests and all manner of interest groups meddle in the process.

High-level policy deliberations at Cabinet level have in the past navigated SA through tough policy decisions, succeeding to some extent in rising above the narrow interests and lobby groups through a combination of good policy advice, principles and a clear set of goals.

All of those things have now become uncertain and murky. It is a sign of a president who has little genuine interest in the business of governing. But it is also, more distressingly, an indication of a Cabinet that has allowed itself to be rendered passive and demoralised, rather than to seize responsibility for governing.

South Africa at a Glance
57 700 000 (mid 2018 estimate)
4.0% y/y in January 2019 (CPI) & +4.1 y/y in January 2019 (PPI)
1.4% q/q (4th quarter of 2018)
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