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South Africa: A developmental state?

Referring to South Africa and/or South Africans, Pusch Commey (in the July 2008 issue of NewAfrican) argues that ‘the trouble is with a massive psychologically-scarred population left behind by a psychologically-devastating system – apartheid’.

This is probably one of the few very direct appraisals of the challenges that face us as a country and the past that haunts us and might haunt us for years if not decades to come. Pusch Commey’s piece, though I do not agree with some of it, presents a useful, however concise, political history of South Africa that should inevitably be the backdrop of our analysis of anything South Africa or South African.

Another important context that is critical in our analysis of South Africa pertains to the backlogs, which should be a standing backdrop of public discourse, that the democratic South Africa faced in 1994. The most obvious example is that of a significant decline in household size from about 5 to about 3: this would mean that the demands of/in the public services such as provision of houses and accompanying amenities would have at least doubled from the estimated backlog of about three million in mid-90s. It is in this context that some of us surmise that significant progress is being achieved, albeit not enough given the enormity of the challenges.

In early June 2008, I found myself (and my co-presenter) colliding with scholars and thinkers in the recent Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) Policy Dialogue on ‘The Potentialities for and Challenges of Constructing a Democratic Developmental State in South Africa’. The paper we presented was an attempt to analyse public policy making in South Africa with the view to explore the extent to which South Africa is a developmental state, drawing from salient characteristics of a ‘developmental state’ as outlined by various scholars in the field [including Robinson and White (1998), Edigheji (2005), Evans (1995)].

Inevitably the paper unpacked the institutional mechanisms in policy making and implementation and discussed main reforms in the management of the South African public services pursued in the 1990s. This was done as part of interrogation of the degree to which the South African state is developmental, and the answer was yes. This was the bone of contention in the conference.

The paper tentatively concluded that South Africa indeed encapsulates most of the key features of a democratic developmental state. In addition, the paper argued that in terms of Evan’s (1995) notion of ‘embedded autonomy’ and Cummings and Norgaard’s (2004) four dimensions of state capacity; it appears that South Africa can be however described, thus far, as a relatively weak developmental state.

Linked to conclusions reached, some of the claims that the paper made and tried to substantiate were: that the manner in which public policies are made (not the policies themselves per se) is the correct one and that it is not that empirically obvious that there have been any shifts in basic tenets and guiding frameworks of the Reconstruction and Development Programme.

In addition, I have argued that all of this has been influenced by the ‘national democratic revolution’ doctrine of the party that leads government. This is not unique to our case as many scholars such as Bahl and Linn (1994) argue that ‘politics’ plays an important role in ‘central-local governance relations’. ‘Political dynamics’ ought to impact, at least intuitively, on public policy or rather that they would inevitably have some role. After all, the agenda of the public sector is largely set by politicians or influenced by a political discourse or normally inspired by the political manifesto of the party that wins the elections (in democratic states). In fact, Dror (2006: 81) alludes to this when he argues that policy and politics ‘closely interact, often overlap, and in part cannot be separated even analytically’. Also, other scholars such as Stone (2001) and Persson and Tabellini (2000, 2006) have dealt with this issue, in different contexts.

Given the 1997 World Development Report’s definition of state capacity as ‘the ability of the state to undertake collective actions at least costs to society’, it is hard to tell whether the South African (developmental) state has undertaken collective actions with least costs to South Africa(ns). The recent sporadic events might suggest otherwise. I am actually reminded of Theodore Draper’s commentary on Fidel Castro’s Cuba, about five years into office, the then ‘new’ Cuban administration, that ‘yet one of the most significant aspects of this crisis was the fact that the Cuban leaders were not prepared for it. Nothing that had happened in 1961 had forewarned them because 1961 had been a relatively good year…’

I have however argued that the South African state has been able to achieve most of what a developmental state ought to accomplish. Some African scholars such as Jimmy Adesina and Thandika Mkandawire, that have assessed policymaking in Africa, argue that policy making initiatives in Africa were influenced by the ‘nationalist’ agenda of nation building and (economic) growth. Further it seems to me that Amartya Sen’s conceptualisation of development has shaped the manner in which South Africa approaches development. Perhaps this is another area which motives my view that South Africa is not a very effective developmental state. Also, the notion of ‘embedded autonomy’ has not fully materialised in the South African case.

In terms of public sector reforms, although the South African government appears to have followed the New Zealand and Australian public sector reforms’ models, it is my contention that these models were followed selectively and carefully and that South Africa took things a step further to give birth to the notion of “joined-up government” (as captured in the workings of the cluster and cabinet committee system). In that context, my main contention is that although there are still many challenges, particularly those that relate to capacity in the public bureaucracy (including its conduct), public policies that are being pursued and the manner in which they are being pursued (in an integrated governance fashion and partnerships with rest of society), is an attempt to mediate the neo-classical economic (or neo-liberal) thinking, including constraints imposed by theories such as public choice theory, on development. This is contrary to Philip Wenzel’s recent characterisation of the South African public service and public policy making.

As vindication of relative successes of the South African developmental state, there are many recent studies that suggest that there are improvements in the ‘quality of life’ of most South Africans. For instance Bhorat et al (2008), in the absence of an official poverty line, they chose to use two lines, the lower poverty line of R174 per person per month and an upper line of R322 per person per month, in 2000 prices. They find that over the period 1995-2005, the first decade of democracy in South Africa, both absolute and relative poverty (on both the upper- and lower-bound poverty lines) have declined. Both poverty lines and the poverty gap index declined. Household poverty, as measured by the headcount index at a poverty line of R322 a month declined by five percentage points, from 53 % in 1995 to 48 % in 2005.

At the lower poverty line of R174 a similar decline in poverty is evident as the incidence of poverty declined by eight percentage points from about 31 to 23 %. The measure of relative poverty — the poverty gap — indicates a similar national trend.

Linked to this are improvements in job creation and social transfers to the most vulnerable. For instance, van der Berg et al (2007:11) using the Labour Force Survey show that ‘approximately 1,7 million jobs were created between 1995 and 2002 and 1,2 million between 2002 and 2006’. In relation to social transfers, the government records (refer to the Mid-Term Review, 2007) suggest that more than 12 million South Africans receive cash transfers, this excludes the social wage in terms of free basic water and electricity, subsidized housing and so on.

These would be consistent with the notion of a developmental state because unless a democracy encourages economic empowerment and improved standards of living for the poor, it cannot be said to be developmental. Otherwise, as Omano Edigheji (a researcher with the HSRC) argued in 2005, the ideals of human rights, freedom and equality that underpin democracy would never be fully realized.

Lastly, as a case in point, the recent Community Survey of Statistics South Africa (2007) establishes, among other things, that:

  • Over 70% of households now live in formal dwellings. This reflects a steady increase, from 64,4% in 1996, to 68,5% in 2001, and 70,5% in 2007.
  • The percentage of households where refuse is removed by a local authority at least once a week increased from 51,2% in 1996, to 55,4% in 2001, to 60,1% in 2007.
  • There has been a decline in the percentage of households having to use the bucket toilet system, from 4,1% in 2001 to 2,2% in 2007.
  • Use of electricity as the main energy source for lighting increased substantially between 1996 and 2007 (from 57,6% in 1996 to 80,0% in 2007).
  • The percentage of households which have computer facilities increased from 8,6% in 2001 to 15,7% in 2007.
  • Only 7,3% of households had access to Internet facility at home in 2007.
  • The proportion of households owning a radio, television, computer, refrigerator and cell-phone increased considerably between 2001 and 2007. For example, the proportion of households owning a cell-phone increased from 32,3% in 2001 to 72,9% in 2007.
  • The percentage of households with access to piped water increased from 84,5% in 2001 to 88,6% in 2007.
  • The proportion of households obtaining access to water from piped water inside the dwelling increased from 32,3% in 2001 to 47,3% in 2007.
  • Lastly, between 2001 and 2007 there has been a notable growth in some secondary schooling among persons aged 20 years and older (33.6% in 1996 to 40.1 % in 2007). In 2007, 9.1 % of persons aged 20 years and above had completed higher education, against 8.4% in 2001 and 7.1% in 1996.
  • We concluded the paper with a caveat that there are some important questions that remain unanswered, given the tentative nature of our conclusions. So, research and/or dialogue continues!


    • Vusi Gumede is a professor at the University of South Africa, also with the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He was previously an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg and he has also lectured public policy at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management (now the School of Governance) at the University of Witwatersrand. He worked for the South African government, in various capacities, for about twelve years. He serves on various boards and committees, including the Presidential Economic Advisory Council, the International Preparatory Committee of the Pan-African Federalist Movement and the National Council of the South African Association of Political Studies. He holds postgraduate qualifications in economics and policy studies, including a Ph.D in Economics (2003) from the erstwhile University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal). He has been Distinguished Africanist Scholar at Cornell University and Yale World Fellow at Yale University, among other fellowships. He was in the boards of Southern Africa Trust and ActionAid South Africa and he is the former coordinator of Afrocentricity International for the South African chapter. He currently also holds an Honorary Professorship at the University of Cape Town. He has published 14 books and numerous journal papers & book chapters as well as written many essays and opinion articles and blogs. He is Editor-in-Chief for Africanus & Africa Insight as well as serving in various Editorial Boards/Committees.