South Africa: governmentally empty?

Dr Jan du Plessis of Intersearch Strategic Management Intelligence says South Africa will require more than good politics to repair government’s functional decay. Roelof Bezuidenhout reports.
Issue date : 12 September 2008

- Advertisement -

Whether sa is heading for a Zimbabwe scenario is a question that’s increasingly being asked. How was it possible for a country with the second-largest economy in the region to be mismanaged into total collapse in less than a decade? The accepted truths of yesterday – a political settlement and regular elections – did not deliver prosperity. W hen the party in power can issue statement after statement but doesn’t have the management capability to facilitate the process, the result is a state of society known as governmental emptiness.

This implies an internal collapse of the government – something completely new in SA thinking. I n this situation, something must emerge in the place of government in its present form. In SA, political leadership itself has become a problem and a secure majority in parliament does not guarantee quality leadership or good governance. By the end of 2006, some 320 000 vacancies existed in the public service. On the level of deputy director general, six out of every 10 positions were vacant.

By this year, 200 out of 284 municipalities had experienced financial and management problems. Key sections of government are no longer functioning properly, with very little prospect of recovery. The population is experiencing increasing obstacles in obtaining any services from government. The contract between government and the population, as embodied in the constitution, has come under attack. The current profile of the population reflects a highly distorted picture of human capital. In a population of over 47 million people, up to 50% are basically poor; close to 50% are illiterate and over 40% are jobless.

- Advertisement -

In less than two decades the population has undergone an incredible demographic meltdown. UN research indicates its profile has changed from the traditional pyramid form to a new hour-glass shape. Now, the productive middle section of the population – between 19 and 45 years – reflects the highest mortality rate. These people die before they can contribute to the welfare of society, which leaves the young and old vulnerable to a lack of education and care.

Add to this the stream of qualified South Africans on the immigration trail and it’s clear the country’s virtual capital – the capital of the mind that enables people to participate and compete in the new global village – is steadily being eroded. The intensity of research and development (R and D) expenditure, measured as the percentage of GDP spent on and D, is a good indication of the competitiveness of a country’s economy. Now, the business sector is SA’s major and D performer and financier and responsible for 58% of all and undertaken. he critical question is whether a recovery is possible in the near future.

This is not an election issue, but one of capabilities. he new driving factor is the demographic distortion of society. As the average lifespan has decreased, the capability of human capital has also declined. There’s a lack of reserve human capital. Rectifying this could take a generation or more – there’s no quick fix. The recovery certainly won’t be achieved by the next election because the political system has largely run out of answers. he solution lies in stopping and reversing the process of functional decay introduced by the policy of transformation, but it’s not in the nature of governments to make 180º turnarounds.

This would bring the credibility of the struggle itself into question. We have a vested interest in the effective functioning of certain sectors of society. People need law and order, roads, water, education, health, and more. As governmental decay sets in, international donors and groups have started filling the gaps. Without them, society may have collapsed long ago. However, their presence will impact on society’s political profile: these groups represent foreign funding and donors over a wide spectrum of the population and territory. he number of registered NGOs in more than trebled in the five years since 2000, from 13 282 to 36 981, motivated by HIV/AIDS crisis, with international funders filling the gaps left by the government’s widely criticised health policy.

Local interest groups fill gaps elsewhere, such as in security. Streets, suburbs and communities apply their own form of police protection, often with the help of companies with international experience and business connections. Small towns can have 24-hour security protection guaranteed by a US or European company. nterestingly, this has reintroduced virtual capital into society. private security industry has grown to three times the size of the police force, implying that perhaps government’s most important function has been transferred to the private sector.

Privatisation has the potential to pull the country back from the brink, but a government can hardly lose most of its key functions and remain sovereign. E-mail Dr Jan du Plessis at [email protected] or call (012) 460 6366. |fw