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South Africa as a democratic developmental state: Bureaucratically not there yet

By Elnari Potgieter

As part of the 2011 State of the Nation address, President Zuma claimed, “Our goal is clear. We want to have a country…where the quality of life is high.” His statement ties in with the South African government’s vision of constructing South Africa as a developmental state, which frames the agenda for governance and the approach to economic policies with a central role for the state in addressing socio-economic challenges, enhancing economic growth and reducing unemployment. However, simply labelling South Africa as “developmental” does not make it so.

Meredith Woo-Cummings – renowned for her work on developmental states – defines the “classic developmental state” (eg. Japan after WW2) as a “seamless web of political, bureaucratic and moneyed influences that structures economic life” formulated to ensure national survival and independence.

Some important elements of such a state include: an elite bureaucracy, a political system supportive of the bureaucracy, market conforming state intervention in the economy and a pilot organisation (such as the MITI of Japan) as agent to control industrial policy.

Following Japan, the four “Asian tigers” adapted the idea of a “developmental state” to their particular circumstances, but maintained certain core elements. These characteristics include: political leadership orientated to enable development, an autonomous and effective bureaucracy, a production-orientated private sector and performance-orientated governance supported by their constituencies.

When considering the canonical ingredients of successful developmental states up to now, it is clear that in these cases the state assumed control of development and macro-economic planning. The central key attribute to do this effectively is a strong, reliable, predictable and skilled bureaucracy.

Such a state has vigorous standards to enter bureaucracy in order to create a sense of unity amongst bureaucrats and foster a sense of mission. Its recruitment process is meticulous and attracts experts who already have lived up to the challenge of maintaining high standards in their jobs before entering the bureaucracy, and long-term career rewards based on performance keep these elites from leaving the public sector. The result is a sense of unity and “corporate coherence” amongst bureaucrats, as well as bureaucracies capable of formulating and implementing policies, constructing markets and motivating actors to operate in these markets.

Moreover, according to the father of the concept of “embedded autonomy”, Peter Evans, state capacity will have an even greater role to play in the societal success of developmental states in future. Especially since the institutions of developmental states have to operate effectively and predictably with the consent of social forces and within a changing context.

Bureaucratic autonomy should thus be directed towards national goals.

When considering a developmental state in the South African context, the particular democratic institutional character and democratic policy orientations of the country should be kept in mind. The capacity required of the South African state to be developmental and at the same time uphold its democratic constitution is even more than the capacity required of developmental countries who simply transformed industries under more autocratic circumstances in the past.

The South African state should provide basic services, adjust to globalisation and redress historical injustices, but at the same time it has to orientate its policies to foster economic development.

In order to successfully address the different issues the state faces, bureaucratic competence and economic planning are of the essence. Bureaucrats should be recruited based on merit and have the incentive of a long-term career as reward to performance in order to recruit only the cream of the crop to make decisions of importance in South Africa. The emphasis should be placed on the technical an administrative competence of the state in order to translate ideology into practice.

Unfortunately, South Africa’s bureaucracy fails to deliver. The post-apartheid state is increasingly characterised by institutional failure and dysfunctionalities. After doing research on the failure in public service delivery of particularly the public hospital sphere in South Africa, Professor Karl Von Holdt (a SWOP director and associate) states:

“The bureaucracy [of South Africa] is characterised by contradictory rationales, purposes and meanings which make it difficult to establish efficient routines or grasp the real problems and seek innovative solutions … It is much easier to seek refuge in existing routines, rules, procedures and hierarchies than to acknowledge and tackle dysfunction.”

A muddled understanding of the challenges facing the country, clashes between officials, the absence of a common ethos or a commitment to excellence, no uniform training or loyalty in service, the mobility of officials which leads to limited institutional memory and a rapid turnover of the elites all contribute to a bureaucracy far from the “high performance machinery” required of the bureaucracy of a developmental state.

South Africa has yet to make the intellectual, philosophical and cultural shifts to build such a state, but the country remains obsessed with “racialised” politics.

What South Africa needs is a coherent vision, constructed by an embedded state. Bureaucrats should be highly qualified individuals (appointed on the basis of merit) with the necessary skills to succeed at reaching their goals and with contracts based on performance. Political and bureaucratic elites should be of equal importance and policies should be adaptable. Furthermore, policy and development should be co-ordinated by an increasingly effective pilot agency in order to ensure coherence in governmental decision-making. Only then will South Africa not only aspire to be developmental, but arrive as such.

Elnari is reading for her MA in political science at Stellenbosch University. Her undergraduate and honours were in value and policy studies, and political studies respectively. She works work with an exchange programme to Stellenbosch for students from the North-Western University in the USA.