What is at stake in government reform? Nothing less than holding the country together

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It is easy to underestimate the importance of a capable state. Without a public sector that works, there can be no resolution to the everyday challenges of government: Addressing sewage treatment plants that are collapsing, rolling out a complex Covid-19 vaccination programme, fixing our failing schools, or even filling the potholes in our roads. But good governance is about far more than improving service delivery.

What can hold a country like South Africa together? The question is a controversial one, but judging from the actions of the South African government over the past 20 years, two candidates for this role have been widely embraced.

The first is inclusive economic growth. If the economy can somehow be influenced to grow in a way that expands employment, diversifies ownership and control, moves the society decisively towards racial and gender equality and retains international competitiveness, then the economy will be the force that binds people together.

The problem, which many economists are not ready to admit, is that these ambitions are mutually exclusive or at least unrealisable. After all, South African governments have long pinned their hopes for the economy on industrialisation. Yet the South African market is too small and too poor. Even before the rise of China, India, Vietnam and Malaysia, South African goods struggled to compete in international markets. 

More importantly, though, economic growth, even fast growth, is as likely to create inequality, division, and antagonism, as it is to create solidarity. This, after all, has been South Africa’s experience for more than a century. 

The second strong candidate is nation-building or nationalism. In a post-Mbeki South Africa, this project has often gone under the name of social cohesion. Here the idea is that social solidarity comes from a shared identity underpinned by shared values: a South African is a person who embodies this identity. 

The problem is, do South Africans exist? There is a range of competing identities claiming the title of South African-ness. Today nonracialism is no longer fashionable, and it is increasingly jostled by various forms of nativism. 

All this means that economic growth and nationalism are as likely to produce violence and exclusion as they are to build social solidarity. 

In fact, the most important basis of cohesion is also the least appreciated. It is public administration or bureaucracy. In other words, it is our common dependence on government administrations for a host of services and goods, from ID documents, to tarred roads, to running water and electricity, to safe streets, to decent hospital care, to railways and airlines, to galleries and theatres, to schools and universities. It is this mutual dependency that creates a shared world of experiences and feelings. 

When government fails, we can sometimes make other plans. If we are wealthy or middle class, we can participate in the great privatisation of apartheid, which brings exclusive private provision of policing, healthcare, education, and transport, but at the cost of further inequality and division.

If we are poor and vulnerable, we may seek protection from strongmen, warlords or crime bosses. When government administrations fail, that is, countries splinter into isolated and hostile worlds. What is endangered is the public domain itself. 

None of us, rich or poor, can replace the core institutions of the state, upon which the entire fabric of our society depends: a legitimate criminal justice system, a functioning revenue service, and a government machinery that is able to translate revenues reasonably impartially into social goods.

This is the point that 15 years of State Capture have brought us to. The single most important issue facing the country is to build and rebuild public institutions. We are fortunate that the damage that has been done is not altogether irreversible. Moreover, the scale and significance of the task are for the first time since 1994 on the political agenda. 

The opposite of good governance is not poor service delivery. It is the death of the public domain. DM

The key problems the new reform framework is designed to address, and the political and practical obstacles that will have to be overcome if it is to succeed, will be the focus of an online conference on “Fast-tracking Public Service Reform”, organised by the think-tank on Government and Public Policy (GAPP), to be held on 28 and 29 April. Daily Maverick readers can contact for further details. The programme is available here

Register for day one here and day two here.

Anthony Butler is Professor of Political Studies at the University of Cape Town and author of Cyril Ramaphosa – The Road To Presidential Power. Ivor Chipkin is director of the Government and Public Policy (GAPP) think-tank.

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