Planning for the Government we have rather than the one we wished we had


The High Court has just ruled that some regulations concerning level 4 and 3 are unconstitutional and many are irrational. Even if the reasoning of the court itself has been called into question, the regulations raise doubts about the government’s own decision-making processes.

The Command Council has been criticised for authoritarianism, having even been compared to working like the former East German Stasi. It has been criticised for locking down South Africa too early and too severely. It has been criticised for not taking sufficient steps to protect the economy. What no-one has criticised, however, is the need for a response coordinated from the centre. 

In the first phase the problem was to ensure that the President and the Command Council acted reasonably and on the basis of evidence. Despite the High Court ruling, South Africans can be relieved not to be living in the US, the UK or Brazil nonetheless. As we move into stage 3, however, a whole new set of governance challenges arise. As the regulatory environment loosens up, the management of the epidemic increasingly falls to lots of different, mostly uncoordinated actors: individuals who must act responsibly, newly opened businesses, community organisations, municipalities and provincial governments.  How does the centre hold under these conditions? 

Yet South Africa has not been so successful in coordinating economic and social development plans from the centre, though there has been no shortage of attempts. The common feature over the years has been the creation of a responsibility in the Presidency to coordinate planning, budgeting, collaboration, performance monitoring, and evaluation of government interventions.  History will show , however, that experiences from Ministers Naidoo, Manuel and lately Mthembu have not been sufficient to ensure that the desired outcomes were achieved.  

After 1982 the National Party developed such capacity in the office of the State President under PW Botha. It was this Presidential power-base that allowed FW de Klerk to proceed with political reforms, even in the absence of overwhelming support in his party. Such capacity was dismantled in the years before 1994 so that President Mandela inherited a very weak centre. This suited many in the ANC who wanted power to reside in the party and not with government. Thabo Mbeki upset the balance with his plans to transform the Presidency into the engine room of a developmental state. His vision was received as a threat by Luthuli House and the revolt that took place at Polokwane must be understood in this context. 

Zuma’s Presidency did not simply reassert the authority of Luthuli House over government, it also weakened the ability of the government to coordinate and plan from the centre. In so doing it empowered provincial, regional and local politicians sometimes against the central government.  Usually this took the form of non-compliance with national regulations, like, for example, National Treasury’s fiscal regulations. Sometimes it took on a political form, where provinces and regions became the power bases of local political barons, using state resources to develop their fiefdoms. 

There are occasions when South Africans across the State, civil-society and business have rallied behind a common national vision. It might not be fair to compare how the government, the private sector and society hosted a successful World Cup event for the first time on the continent and in South Africa in 2010, with the current response(s) to the coronavirus crisis.  South Africa chose to compete with other nations to host the event. Between when the first submission to FIFA and the time the whistle blew for the opening, a period of around ten years had elapsed.  No-one invited the Coronavirus, however.  

Nonetheless a comparison is justified. The world cup and the epidemic raise questions about what needs to be controlled, what must change and what needs to be replaced.  They demanded and demand  the establishment of a centralised system to plan, coordinate and manage tasks undertaken by numerous decentralised actors.  

The World Cup in South Africa would not have happened without the concurrence of a centrally coordinated compact between national, provincial and local government.  The L.O.C (local organising committee) was this body, bringing together the State, Business and the organised football fraternity.  Government coordinated operational issues through the L.O.C and host city forums, stadium management companies and Business.  It remained responsible for the desired outcomes which had more to do than with just football. 

 The Centre cannot exist without a periphery. Today, part of the periphery’s dynamics relate to a lack of leadership in local institutions,  leading to fragmentation across the spheres and among sectors. It includes the way  SOEs in all three spheres behave, as well as the conduct of private businesses and civil society organisations. There is an enduring tension between top down and bottom up, which must be continuously reconciled.

Policies that simply assume the authority of the central government are bound to crash against provincial and local walls. This remains true even if technocratic capacity at the centre is strengthened. 

This is how we think the centre and the periphery can be balanced today: 

  1. The command council includes only key national ministers. It should be expanded to include Premiers from affected Provinces and Mayors and Municipal Managers in key municipalities. 
  2. The role of the command council will be to develop a national plan on the basis of the latest epidemiological modelling. 
  3. Important work has been done in building a centralised and effective procurement system, leveraging off proven institutions  already in existence
  4. It should be the responsibility of districts to build appropriate coalitions of delivery partners, including government departments and agencies and also NGOs and private companies. 
  5. Local planning should be supported by senior national officials acting in an advisory role, rather than an executive one. 
  6. Civil society and the media are often more effective guarantors of accountability than formal structures. Let them have access to all decision-making forums and places of delivery. Let national plans be subjected to scrutiny in the public domain. Let local operational plans also be subject to ongoing monitoring in the media and by civil society. 
  7. What incentives can be put in place to ‘nudge’ cooperation and coordination? Social psychologists increasingly recognise the importance of ‘recognition’. Should we not celebrate successful operations by giving attention to the individuals, departments and companies that produce good results?

This is a time to plan for the government we actually have rather than the one we wished we had.

Pascal Moloi, Pali Lehohla, Tania Ajam and Ivor Chipkin are coordinating the Ctrl-Alt-Del initiative to Reset Government, convened by the Government and Public Policy Thinktank (GAPP).

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