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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.


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  1. Tofolux Tofolux 13 June 2012

    @Elnari, our developmental state would have enjoyed much more success if ALL of its citizenry accepted this responsibility. Instead of operating in isolation of each other and holding onto old ideologies coupled with the fear instrument, we would have been well on the road to the desired outcome. Take business or media eg, they have operated as the fifth estate or seperate columns in society. In fact, they have become govt new opposition. I think it is very narrow to blame govt only. If you think back at the talks ANC had with business, there they gave their committment to rebuild this country and look what happened. They have abandoned their committment despite making huge profits, and here I point to their social responsibility. I would promote the idea that govt deliberately intervenes and sets vigorous targets. The question is not about skills and capacity to produce the results. The results are evidenced by the economy’s performance. I also think that you should take the National Planning Portfolio more seriously. This is where the national plan will emanate. Rebuilding and transforming this country has proved to be a major challenge. But who are the motive forces? It cannot be govt alone. And we should admit that democracy coupled with capitalism is a selfish system. But some amongst us are holding onto this failed system because it suits their agenda.


    Succinctly put. now for the implementation…what a lonely word.

  3. Peter Joffe Peter Joffe 13 June 2012

    The basic problem in South Africa is that the ANC wishes to be unchallenged in whatever they do and they believe that the constitution inhibits development. Throughout Africa one party states in general and states that are guided by communist ideals as is the case in South Africa (which is also a one party state), have no need for a constitution. What sort of ‘democracy’ do the ANC want? It is one that allows corruption, crime, the decay of the rule of law and cadre deployment no matter that most of the cadres are not qualified to do anything other than dance and sing. Zuma has reshuffled his cabinet that is a pack of Jokers, so all that has happened is that one Joker is moved to replace another Joker and nothing will change. But at least the new Joker in say the Department of Defense, can blame the old Joker for the mess that was created by deploying cadres who do not know that they do not know!
    The ANC does not understand that education, training and experience should be the only criteria in appointments to run a business that is South Africa. We now have a new Police Chief who knows absolutely nothing about Police Work. Will she succeed? It is doubtful but one thing is for sure she will be guided and ruled by Zuma.
    Idi Amin started this nonsense of being a “General”. Titles and uniforms don’t make a General. Experience and results are needed? It’s bad that those with the stripes are not considered but then they may be honest and that’s not good for Zuma.

  4. The Creator The Creator 13 June 2012

    Tofolux, obviously it would be nice if the white elite came to the party. However, it is wrong to say that the failure of developmentalism is their fault. In the end, only government can genuinely build a developmental state, and if the corporate sector doesn’t play along, the government has the power, and should have the will, to get its own work done.

    The grim fact is that it is not doing so. We have slipped backwards from the days of Mbeki, when the government was excessively compliant to corporate desires. Under Zuma, the government has simply become a tool of big business, which means that it is essentially unresponsive to real developmental needs. (Because big business is not interested in development, it is obsessed with fantasies of profit without investment.)

    The National Plan has not materialised. It could have been drafted within weeks, given the resources. After three years, if it isn’t coming, it isn’t going to come. What we have instead is a vapid wish-list and a set of excuses for why there is no real plan. Sorry, Tofolux, but you have drunk the Kool-Aid. Time to vomit it up before you get poisoned.

  5. Tofolux Tofolux 13 June 2012

    @Creator, before you jump over the moon let me offer a simple explanation about a developmental state. Our developmental state is characterised in the context of a national democratic revolution, note the word national. Government becomes interventionist in terms of where business should be going and what their outcomes must be.(for obvious reasons) but let me not confuse you. Government sits down, draws up a plan , identifies weaknesses and says where we need to be at a certain point. Ok now I want you to open your mind and think SOUTH AFRICA and its apartheid challenges. So govt and business sets up a meeting and TOGETHER they do target setting which is measured according to outcomes. Now, Creatr, business is a motive force……Is this simple enough an explanation?

    This comment has been edited.

  6. Brian B Brian B 14 June 2012

    Ok lets simplify the situation.

    Apartheid South Africa achieved high levels of infrastructure roads, railways water and electricity supply etc.

    The majority were denied the vote and discriminated against.The struggle which ensued resulted in death atrocities and mayhem which can never be condoned.

    The democratically elected regime were handed a developed country with critical social injustices but could hardly be described as Third World.

    An ideologically driven furore ensued where the new government attempted to restructure the administration of country and rewrite history.

    The thinkers amongst them built on what they inherited.

    Unfortunately they were outnumbered by the apparatchiks who fuelled the notion of “Third World” to justify their existence and camouflage their inexperience and ineptitude.

    Certain improvements such as providing running water to rural people were made but on the whole there has been a retardation of real progress in the provision of better living standards, education, justice health.

    When Zuma says “Our goal is clear. We want to have a country…where the quality of life is high.” does he really comprehend what is required or is this just spin?

  7. Oldfox Oldfox 17 June 2012

    Agreed, big business could have played a different role. But the blog title is about SA not having the beauracracy to implement a successful developmental state. And that has nothing to do with big business.

  8. Elnari Elnari 18 June 2012

    Dear Tofolux
    Please understand that I am not blaming government alone for all that is going wrong in South Africa, I am merely asking whether the role government currently fulfils in South Africa is the one it proclaims to fulfil. Yes, citizens should accept responsibility and business should work with government towards the development of the country. But is our government skilled and able enough to take on its envisioned role as embedded state? As Peter Joffe stated, labels is not the reality. It takes more than just titles, plans and words to get things going in order to develop. For example, as The Creator stated, the National Plan has yet to materialize-the ideas and strategies are there, but can government move beyond its poetic statements? In fact, many of the plans, ideals, promises and ideas of the government have yet to deliver. Since delivering these plans is the job of the bureaucracy, I question whether the bureaucracy we have now can and will be able to deliver in future, given the lack in adequate skills and incentives to do so. Furthermore, the bureaucracy’s inability to distinguish between what is wanted and what is needed for and from business and the South African citizens limits development rather than foster these two players as allies in the development in South Africa. To enable this idea of working together, we need highly specialized, experienced and informed decision-makers reaching out to citizens and business in working together for a common…

  9. TumiM TumiM 10 July 2012

    Ive arrived very late to this conversation, but will comment anyway.
    Coming from the public sector I can assure you that the problem of delivery is about more than just skills and capacity. More important than skill (which is there, and unexplored), are two issues: independence, and political will. Working in the public sector, politics is obviously part of the package, however there are no safe guards for public servants who want to do their jobs. No one is confused about what needs to get done, versus what politicians WANT. There is little support from high ranking officials to implement the PFMA as required, never mind to be creative in finding solutions. In the institution I work for, there have been COUNTLESS suggestions for implementation, most of which are shot down either because there is no political support, or because Managing officials feel threatened (not an exclusively public sector problem I might add), and yes, there’s too much comfort in doing the tried, tested and failed. When there is political will, eg. in health currently the Minister is insisting that heads of departments should have medical experience – I believe the level of expertise will be dealt with, and there will be more room for independent decision making within the bureaucracy, and higher standards of delivery. It must be a two way process, but I think high ranking Officials have been very silent on their challenges, and need to start dealing with them more honestly.

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