In recent weeks there has been a consistent stream of cautionary advice coming from leading economists and analysts warning us that our economic situation is so dire there is a danger that our ability to continue to provide social services at the current levels will be seriously constrained and may certainly lead to rolling social unrest. I am not a pessimist as I believe crises provide the best opportunity for radical change in direction. All it always requires is a change in strategy and visionary leadership. I wonder though whether the political leadership we have can seize the moment and boldly do what has to be done.
They also tell us that the key domestic drivers for growth have been flat for a long time and we cannot ascribe this deterioration exclusively to external factors. Much of the poor performance is due to the wrong policy choices that we’ve made, poor leadership, incompetence and above all, nepotism and corruption.
For over 10 years energy demand has far exceeded supply and to avoid electricity blackouts, Eskom had to resort to paying large energy consumers a fortune as compensation for reducing their consumption. This self-inflicted restraint on industry and business to grow and invest has had a serious negative impact on our ability to grow the economy and to create jobs. Many of Eskom’s power-generating assets are nearing the end of their lifetime and this necessarily puts a huge challenge on its maintenance capability. The disruptive breakdowns experienced recently point to a lack of management capability and competence.
Business has been accused of having embarked on an investment strike but given the reality of energy uncertainty its reluctance to take risk is understandable. The sad part is that this situation might continue for the next five years.
Lack of skills is often quoted as one of the main constraints to investment. Our dysfunctional public education system has been blamed for this appalling weakness. There are several contributing factors to the poor performance of the system but the lack of properly qualified teachers and education resource materials plays a critical role in our inability to provide quality education as required by the Constitution.
The recruitment process for teachers urgently needs to be reviewed to ensure objectivity and impartiality in the recruitment of properly qualified and competent teachers. This might require that independent provincial teacher councils are created and mandated to manage the recruitment and placement of teachers and principals. Such an intervention will eliminate the corrosive influence of teacher unions, like Sadtu, which allegedly uses patronage to corrupt the system.
Where patronage is allowed to thrive, objectivity and impartiality are always sacrificed. The main motivation is to control and manipulate for purposes other than serving the interests of the people. This is consistent with the operational culture of central command and control practised by the ANC in exile. Combined with the indiscriminate practice of cadre deployment and abuse of affirmative action, weak corporate governance is now the norm. The objective of achieving a “capable state” as anticipated in the national development plan will be impossible under the current circumstances.
This collapse in corporate governance is best manifested in the state of local government and municipalities. A number of initiatives and interventions were launched in the past 15 years to improve operational efficiency at this level. The last one was Operation Clean Audit 2014 launched in 2009. Its objective was that all 283 municipalities (now 278) and provincial departments should achieve a clean audit on their financial statements by 2014.
A report by researchers at the multi-level government initiative — Operation Clean Audit 2014: Why it Failed and What Can Be Learned — examined the impact of the national government’s intended objectives with this undertaking and identified the risks that arise when policy is not based on statistical analysis. Its conclusion was that by setting a fixed target for achieving clean audits in all municipalities and not adjusting them to the annual audit trends, the intervention had no realistic prospect of success and merely measured failure. And the underlying reason, as the Auditor General has pronounced, is that people employed as accountants in these entities have no competence to prepare financial statements. They rely on consultants at the time of the audits. This is very scary. And it is a direct result of patronage and corrupt cadre deployment practices.
The crisis we now face requires bold and decisive leadership. Regrettably, the attention and focus of the ruling party has been dominated by internal, faction wars and the collapse of Cosatu. The faction wars are fundamentally driven by the selfish objective of winning power to dispense patronage. In such a struggle, those that are excluded this time around will be plotting meticulously to win the next round. In the process, the attention of the ruling party is diverted from the key responsibility of governing.
The warning of the experts is timely and relevant. And the doubts expressed by the rating agencies on our growth prospects are not unfounded. We are indeed on a dangerous precipice. Meaningful change will happen only when the ability of the public to hold their elected representatives to account is improved and strengthened by changing the electoral system.