African National Congress (ANC) delegates to last week’s policy conference favoured the theme ‘radical shift’ to frame their policy prescriptions for dealing with South Africa’s ‘triple challenge’ of poverty, unemployment and inequality.
Deliberations focused on ways to foster a transition from the country’s current form of capitalism – which offers only limited economic inclusion and wealth sharing and which is supported, inadequately, by the prevailing affirmative action and black economic-empowerment policies – to a form of State capitalism. In other words, having the State not merely providing the legislative and budgetary frameworks for overhauling the country’s unequal economic structures, but also having one that is more active in the economic and business processes, so as to ‘democratise and deracialise’ the economy.
Much emphasis was, thus, given to issues such as intervention and new taxes in the mining sector, reviewing the ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ land redistribution model, and using the infrastructure programmes, which are being led, in the main, by State-owned companies, to leverage industrialisation and skills development.
The problem is that many of the policy suggestions that have emerged will inevitably be burdened with unintended consequences – visibility of which will, no doubt, only fully emerge once the ANC policies begin morphing into draft government policies that then have to be canvassed with society ahead of implementation.
The net effect will be a long-winded process of dialogue that is likely to be frustrating for both the ANC and its interlocutors. It will also divert attention and energy away from a number of other interventions that could begin making an immediate dent in the triple challenge.
It could be argued that, if the ANC wants to facilitate ‘radical’ and visible shifts, it could have paid far more attention to matters that are truly within the ANC-led government’s immediate sphere of control and influence.
True, it is less exciting, even dull, to debate measures necessary to professionalise the civil service than it is to muse over macro- and microeconomic reform and review – even revolution.
But just imagine the development spin-offs that could flow if the ANC and its Alliance partners threw the spotlight on educators actually teaching for their allotted hours, or on plans to decisively deal with the unacceptably poor levels of maths and science teaching and learning (even if that means importing teachers for a period).
Imagine the growth benefits that could flow from an immigration system that was applied transparently and with a keen eye to dealing with South Africa’s skills shortages – particularly at a time when there will be top-level eurozone skills in search of a new home.
Imagine the innovation and business energy that could flow from a well-administered company registration system that sought to make it as simply and as fast as possible to start a new enterprise.
Imagine the improvements that would emerge in poor areas if there were to be large-scale collaboration between government and civil society to deal decisively with the housing, infrastructure, health, education and recreational deficits in these protest-prone hot spots. The list could go on and on.
Instead, there is defensiveness and a closed mindedness that are likely to remain a binding constraint to any radical shift aspiration and a real risk that the policy proposals will be seen as little more than energy-sapping ‘aspirational waffle’, to borrow a phrase from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.