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Respect for the people is the missing glue in our governance architecture

When a new and inclusive democratic government was voted into power in 1994 we all rejoiced in the hope and trust that we were entering a new era led by a caring government that would be driven by the principles and values of ethical leadership. We also believed that the new democratic government would open the door to a prosperous future by creating an enabling environment for fair and equitable opportunity and self-realisation for all.

Among the notable achievements of the new government was the creation of a welfare system that managed to cushion the sting of poverty and hunger among the poor. This is a flagship success story that has received worldwide support and commendation and, in a significant way, given meaning to our stated commitment to be a caring government. The achievement was made possible by the focused strategy to transform our public finance system and bring order and efficiency in our tax collection and budgeting.

A bigger and even more complex and difficult challenge relates to our failure to create an environment where equitable opportunity for growth for all exists. Central to this challenge has been the documented inability to build an efficient and competent state machinery that is able to spend the allocated budgets and achieve the intended outcomes. What is even more baffling is why this weakness has been allowed to deteriorate over the past 20 years. The reports of the auditor general attest to this painful state of affairs and yet corrective action has been painfully slow and lethargic. The situation in my view points to a more fundamental problem of attitude.

In my opinion, respect for the people who put you in a position of power is a fundamental underlying principle of a democratic system. It is further consolidated and given practical effect in the institutions of governance that are put into place and re-enforced by the mechanisms of accountability that are incorporated in our system of government. Our philosophy and principle of Batho Pele (People First) was therefore intended to drive the manner in which we deliver our public services and it embraces this overarching value of respect.


Furthermore, our commitment to this critical value and the principle of Batho Pele required of us to ensure that the people that have been consciously appointed and deployed to all the key and critical levels of responsibility in our state machinery and its enterprises possess unquestionable levels of qualification, competence and capability to efficiently execute their mandates. But the alarming state of organisational dysfunction prevalent in many of our state enterprises and institutions points to the opposite. We opted for respect for our political leaders rather than the people who elected the ruling party into power.

The operating model for a competent and effective organisation is structured around the following key guiding pillars:

  • A clear and realistic strategic vision.
  • A vision aligned set of strategies and objectives.
  • An effective performance-monitoring mechanism.
  • An effective structure and competent leadership to execute the strategy efficiently and be held to account.

Many of our state-owned enterprises fail on most of these pillars. And the cause in most cases is the failure of the state to clarify the vision and put in place effective governance structures with clear measures of accountability. How else can one explain this situation except on the basis of a profound level of arrogant disrespect — on the part of the ruling elite — for the people that these organisations are intended to serve? Various explanations have been advanced to explain this phenomenon. But it is unavoidable and reasonable to conclude that this behaviour is inspired by a false sense of incumbency. The liberation premium has all but eroded and evidence from the ordinary people is that this attitude is not going unnoticed and there might be significant electoral price to pay in a not too distant future.

The arrogance I refer to is evident in the attitude of the key ministers of state in failing to acknowledge the central role of the private sector in growing the economy and creating jobs. And, while President Jacob Zuma appears quite sanguine about it, every critical indicator points to a precipitous decline towards a tipping point. The needed private sector investment funds are not flowing because the investment climate has been eroded and there is no indication that the economic growth rate will clip the 5% level by 2019 as anticipated in the National Development Plan. The general consensus points to an ideological and policy gridlock on the question of what economic growth strategy to adopt in order to solve the structural unemployment challenges we face.

The efficiency levels required to transform the current state machinery and achieve levels of organisational efficiency and effectiveness needed for a state-led development trajectory are not possible without a significant paradigm shift and change of attitude in the governing party. And clearly there is no political will to make the necessary shift. What is missing is a decisive decision-making centre within the tripartite alliance.

The ANC needs to focus on its mission to deal with the social challenges of our nation in a rational and pragmatic fashion. This will require that it completes Thabo Mbeki’s strategy of separating itself from the ideological rhetoric of the SACP and interest groups like Cosatu and in the process remain small but better. Otherwise the reality is that without this shift, the much vaunted developmental state will remain a pipe dream and the shifting ground may render it irrelevant in the near future.


  • Thabang Motsohi

    Thabang is a very experienced and leading strategy consultant with more than 20 years of executive management experience. His forte and focus as an organizational strategist concerns helping organisations develop vision aligned strategies and deal with repositioning challenges in changing market environments while maintaining a sustainable and competitive advantage. He is a graduate of the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. He has also completed the Harvard Senior Executive Programme.