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Interrogating the ‘developmental state’

The “developmental state” is one of the most under-theorised aspects of national discourse.

In fact we live in a country of mutating political mythologies we tend to be uncritically attracted to. For example, the “battle for the soul of the ANC” has been bandied about in the media for years when in reality the ANC’s redistributionist soul was severely compromised way back in 1996 when the current conservative macroeconomic framework was unilaterally adopted by the Cabinet and a host of consultants and advisers. It was further compromised after 1996 by the adoption of explicit neo-liberal municipal legislation which moved from redistribution towards cost recovery, commercialisation and commodification.

The increased fiscal spending/space over the past few years has not fundamentally altered the thrust of this framework, which is precisely why the ANC’s efforts within it has had minimal impact on people’s lives. Let me use a rough analogy to illustrate my point: it is similar to the ruling party giving each poor black person R100 but the impact of its broader neo-liberal policy framework takes back R125, with the result that there are several reports over the past five years which clearly show an increase in black unemployment and poverty and a widening of social inequalities, over the same period that state spending has increased.

Therefore the whole notion of a “developmental state” has been largely rhetorical because there is little substantial evidence of it. Besides, how can we regard a state as “developmental” when poor black people are denied adequate water supply because they are too poor to pay for it beyond the present miserably inadequate free “lifeline” supples?

Water — because of its vital and non-substitutable significance in our daily lives — is arguably the most important indicator of “development” and poverty reduction, yet there is little of it for poor families. In fact, in other parts of the Third World “water poverty” lies at the centre of broader social poverty. So if any democratically elected state is seriously committed to “development” the one vital resource — which poor people in particular daily depend on — they should not “mess with” is water.

But in Soweto, families often go without water and electricity simultaneously because they don’t have money to readily recharge expired prepaid meters, which have spread to many townships, even though the ANC government and the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry knows prepaid water meters were banned in the United Kingdom in 1999 because of the adverse health consequences they had on poorer households. The further irony is that though poor households in Soweto are on the whole considerably worse off than those in the UK, our government not only went ahead and installed these meters but ran roughshod over community opposition and arrested and charged protesters.

There is also no flush sanitation when households run out of water. People — including women and children — have to find a place outside in the yard to defecate and later dispose of it. And until a household can obtain money to buy recharge vouchers they are unable to cook, clean and wash. Even sick people cannot take their medicine because there is no water.

So we need to be careful not to uncritically perpetuate the myth of a “developmental state” in South Africa when poor households are denied adequate access to the most vital daily resource. In fact, it is a striking, sad and revealing irony that evil as the previous hated racist regime was, they hardly ever cut the water supply to black townships. But the ANC-led government has cut the water supply of millions of black households over the past decade.

It is therefore impossible to reconcile this sorry reality with the most elementary notion of a “developmental state” — especially given our history and legitimate expectations after 1994. Instead, in the case of water consumption in places such as Soweto, we have actually regressed compared to the apartheid past. But as with the “battle for the soul of the ANC” the “developmental state” band plays on nonetheless …