From the Inside: Meaning well doesn’t always translate into doing well

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The sordid details of State Capture, broadcast daily on live television from the Zondo Commission, have left many South Africans asking: What happened? How did things go so horribly wrong?

In trying to answer this question, we need to avoid our default position of 1) blaming someone else for the mess and 2) outsourcing responsibility for fixing it.

Just one year ago, South Africa’s favourite culprits were Jan van Riebeeck, and “white monopoly capital”. Salvation would come through “radical economic transformation”

Today’s “demon du jour” is Jacob Zuma and we turn to his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, for salvation. “Fix it Cyril,” bleated the Mail & Guardian’s front page this week.

As we come to terms with the fact that large parts of the South African state have degenerated into criminal enterprises, we ask ourselves: “How did the party of Nelson Mandela turn into the party of Jacob Zuma under our very noses in such a short time?”

The short answer is: It wasn’t an aberration. It was inevitable. In fact, it has been ANC policy since 1994.

What’s more, the ANC never hid this from us. The party was entirely open about its objectives. The only amazing thing is that it took most of us so long to believe them. In fact, the majority of analysts still don’t!

From the start, the ANC has defined its mission as a “National Democratic Revolution” (NDR) which is, in fact, just a pretentious academic name for “State Capture”.

The NDR is a Marxist-Leninist concept that requires the state to control society, the party to control the state, and a “vanguard” (elite leadership group) to control the party.

Once this is achieved, it is only a matter of time before criminal syndicates (like the Guptas) capture the party’s leadership group, and with it, the entire state enterprise.

The staging posts were clear. The NDR’s GPS navigation system steered us at every point in the journey, with unerring accuracy, to bring South Africa to where we are today.

It started with the centralisation of power in Luthuli House, followed by cronyism and corruption, and finally culminating in full-blown criminalisation of the state.

Of course, it was never meant to be like this. The intention of “democratic centralism” is always noble — to provide disciplined ideologically driven leadership in order to transform society in the interests of the poor. But the outcome is always, and inevitably, the opposite.

We believed Nelson Mandela when he promised that this time, it would be different.

We should have listened more carefully when he realised, much earlier than most of the rest of us, that it wouldn’t.

Back in 2001 he said: “Little did we suspect that our own people, when they got a chance, would be as corrupt as the apartheid regime. That is one of the things that has really hurt us.”

Hurtful, no doubt. But the truth is that, given unfettered power, the vast majority of people, everywhere, will become corrupt. Hence the timelessness of Lord Acton’s aphorism: Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

We were too drunk on the idea of South African exceptionalism to face this fact. Anyone who tried to burst the bubble was shamed into silence.

The rot began at the very beginning — in 1994, the year of our “election miracle”. Not long afterwards, the ANC was already seeking to change the interim constitution, that placed the appointment and promotion of civil servants in the hands of an independent civil service commission. The commission’s function was to ensure the implementation of the negotiated constitutional principle that the country would have an “efficient, non-partisan, career-orientated public service broadly representative of the South African community”.

That goal, however, was incompatible with the NDR that required the party to control the state.

So, despite the fact that, by 1996, the commission was making good progress in diversifying and strengthening the civil service, the ANC moved against it.

Using the figleaf of “demographic representivity” (rather than “broad representivity), the ANC formalised its cadre deployment policy in 1996. Its stated objective was to “fulfil the democratically expressed will of the people”.

This fine-sounding phrase enabled the ANC to nullify the idea of an independent, merit-based public service in one easy move. The party had to control the state. The final constitution of 1996 stripped the public service commission of its role in appointing civil servants.

Again, the ANC was entirely honest about its intentions. Using its policy mouthpiece, Umrabulo, the party explained that the purpose of cadre deployment was to bring all levers of power under its control — “the army, the police, the bureaucracy, intelligence structures, the judiciary, parastatals, and agencies such as regulatory bodies, the public broadcaster, the central bank and so on”.

The principle of separation of powers — particularly the separation between party and state — was wilfully, purposefully and publicly obliterated.

Those who pointed out the dangers of doing so, particularly the then Democratic Party, using the meticulous research of James Myburgh, were branded racist, the age-old smear that seeks to nullify uncomfortable analysis when there is no rational response.

Inevitably, as soon as cadre deployment became the ANC’s formal policy, internal warfare within the party escalated, as factions fought for control of various organs of state to advance their own interests. Victory went to the leader who promised his followers the best rewards.

Zuma’s accession to power was no accident of history. It was the inevitable outcome of the politics of patronage. He knew how to play the game better than anyone else.

It is also time to face another harsh reality: The consequences of State Capture go way beyond corruption, and even beyond criminality.

The policy has bequeathed us an incapacitated state, which is arguably more difficult to fix. Even if Cyril could deal with corruption, by firing its perpetrators, he cannot resolve the incapacity that has paralysed large sectors of South Africa Inc.

Of course, there are hard-working, capable, committed and courageous civil servants, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Most officials of this calibre have been hounded out of office by compromised and captured politicians, as Faith Muthambi’s treatment of Phumla Williams illustrates.

So, even if Cyril manages to fire blatantly corrupt officials, he cannot easily get rid of the merely incompetent. Ask me. In almost 10 years, the Western Cape Government has managed to dismiss precisely one official on the basis of poor performance (although 15 have resigned, as we commenced the interminable and onerous legally defined process of managing incapacity).

But let’s give “Super Cyril” the benefit of the doubt. Even if he could, in theory, do it more quickly, he knows that the surgery would kill the patient. The cancer of patronage (another word for cadre deployment) has metastasised so thoroughly through the state apparatus that no ANC leader could survive excising it. The entire ANC hierarchy is not only riddled with it. It is actually built upon it. The ANC’s very survival, and that of its leaders, depends on continuing it.

This means that the ANC, in its present form, is South Africa’s core problem.

It was almost quaint to read Peter Bruce’s column in which (following months of promoting Ramaphoria) he concluded that the ANC may not be up to the task. Instead, suggested Bruce, the private sector and civil society must step up to the plate.

Our salvation, he says, is economic growth.

But here’s another harsh reality. You can’t have economic growth without investment, and you won’t have investment without public confidence, and you cannot have public confidence in the absence of a capable state.

The ANC cannot deliver a capable state. Nor, on their own, can the business sector or civil society. Of course, their role is vital to progress, but they cannot substitute for a functional, competent state. Achieving that is the responsibility of voters.

Why is this crucial point always absent from the analysis?

Which brings me to the real purpose of this article, which is to respond to Professors Henk Botha and Bradley Slade of Stellenbosch university’s law faculty, who wrote a long analysis, filled with big academic words, to reject my article praising the efforts of a small group of students who have introduced a serious debate about freedom and transformation on campus.

The professors clearly have the same touching faith in critical race theory (another manifestation of Marxism) as so many people once had in the NDR. After all, its intentions are good. It means well.

The issue, however, is not intentions. Good intentions should be a default position. Most people have them.

It is outcomes that matter.

And, just like the NDR, the current obsession with identity politics (a manifestation of critical theory), will predictably lead to devastating consequences for the very people it seeks to benefit.

Unless something more interesting comes up in the week ahead, (that I would prefer to write about instead), my next column will explain why. Till then, keep meaning well, Professors! DM

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