David Maimela

About David Maimela

David Maimela is researcher at Mapungubwe Institute and a student of International Relations. He writes in his personal capacity

On 27 October, the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection will convene a workshop on the Evolution of the South African State, where papers developed by various researchers will be presented. What are some of the issues that will be discussed?

The recent global economic crisis, the high levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality, and the calls for greater state involvement in the economy, are events that should encourage South Africans across ideological, racial, class and gender divides to debate the question: what is or should be South Africa’s development logic?

It is possible for South Africans to reach consensus on a development logic and there is capacity urgently to realise it. However for this to happen, we need a legitimate democratic developmental state to lead, nudge and incentivise.

A development logic in our context should mean an inclusive and carefully crafted developmental society as opposed to an exclusivist, and even purist set of varied grand sectoral strategies supported and implemented haphazardly informed by narrow interests along class, ideological or political lines. This haphazardness usually results in one or a combination of the following:  stagnation, confusion or conflict. In the end, the country misses strategic opportunities and paralysis sets in.

At present, the so-called nationalisation debate is a fine example of this paralysis. On the one hand, you have powerful private interests that are opposed to nationalisation and on the other, some political interests (of course with the backing of understandable popular sentiment and demands) believing that nationalisation will resolve the strategic challenges facing our political economy. In my view, both sides miss an opportunity to imagine the potential of South Africa’s political economy as an economy of the future, sustainable and inclusive. In the 21st century, no country in the world can succeeded by depending on grand strategies that are based on the narrow interests of one section of society.

The strange irony about key stakeholders in the South African political economy is that they all agree with the Diagnostic Overview of the National Planning Commission and yet cannot develop converging long-term strategies to resolve the key challenges identified, for the benefit of society as a whole.

The basis for this development logic would be the political economy and its context would be the ever-changing global and domestic reality. This entails the ability of the political economy to ‘adjust and adapt’. If we nationalise and yet the economic structure remains unaltered, we will perpetuate the same path of accumulation and no new prospects of growth and development will arise. Equally if we follow the orthodox neo-liberal options of a laissez-faire economics, we will continue in the same skewed and unfair path of unsustainable development and accumulation.

So, what type of political institutions, systems, processes and alliances will bring about a potentially sustainable development logic to save our political economy from collapse?

The Norwegian experience, among others, presents instructive lessons for South Africa:

First, the Norwegian state sees itself as an institution that manages competing social interests to the benefit of society as a whole. According to Jonathan Moses, a scholar based in Norway, ‘no particular interest is allowed to dominate’. And this understanding is accepted by all key players and has ‘proven to be an effective tool for facilitating rapid adjustments to changing international conditions’.

Second, by developing a Sovereign Wealth Fund, whose funds are sourced from the revenue that comes from their natural wealth (petroleum), they are able to avoid the Dutch Disease by investing in offshore markets and thus avoid using the advantage of such wealth for narrow consumption in the domestic economy. This has had a positive effect on managing high inflation and other monetary pressures. Only a fraction of these funds is injected into the domestic economy in various ways.

Third, the state bureaucracy, in the words of Moses, is ‘expert, professional and autonomous’ and this extends to the development of legislation too. This simply means that the state is embedded enough to lead national development and yet, autonomous enough from capture by sectarian interests.

Fourth, the policy-making process involves all stakeholders through ‘consultation, formulation and implementation’. This builds the necessary trust, confidence and consensus among stakeholders, something that any developmental state needs.

Finally, in addition to the above things, the cost of living is kept low through a set processes and instruments to manage wage increases, run-away price increases etc. This is possible because, labour and capital usually agree on necessary compromises and trade-offs and the state provides protection and promotes an affordable quality life for all.

The Norwegian case illustrates the fact that sectarian positionalism cannot resolve the multi-layered challenges facing our political economy.

Of course South Africa has a bigger population, legacy issues and peculiar context when juxtaposed with Norway or the Scandinavian experience and reality. However, some of these lessons can be adaptable. The South African developmental state that we aim to create has the capacity to develop a long-term vision. This is reflected in various ruling party and state policy documents. Unfortunately, what we lack is leadership, not only at the political level but, across all sectors of society and the ability to coordinate our efforts honestly and excellently.

Others have also argued quite convincingly that; the Scandinavian experience has the advantage of a homogenous society as opposed to our diverse and heterogeneous South African demographic. This alone, makes it easier for Norway to easily reach consensus and cohere as a society. In South Africa, the reality of a divided past, persistent inequality and; recently the re-racialisation of discourse, makes it difficult to achieve what has been achieved in this region of the world.

The state needs to be capacitated enough to ensure that there are consequences for lack of cooperation by the private sector; and civil society too must be prodded and incentivised to appreciate the need for a social compact. Equally, the state must punish very harshly those who abuse it, including politicians. It must create a gulf between itself and the ‘Fanonian’ political ruling class to avoid capture from within. This may entail a redesign of our political institutions in the light of a dominant political party that is clearly becoming corrupt and complacent.

What is important is not to model South Africa along the lines of the Scandinavia or the East Asian Tigers but rather, to fashion a developmental logic and state that is contextual to the South African conditions and based on the African reality. In this regard, the greatest light will be ‘learning by doing’; in other words, learning through trial and error.

One of the key strategic tasks facing the South African society is to take advantage of the knowledge and technological potentialities inherent in political economy. The motive force of development is science and technology, without which re-industrialisation cannot take place. For instance, at a strategic level, the Platinum Group Metals presents South Africa with the unique opportunity of being the economy of the future in the area of alternative and renewable sources of energy. In this regard, the question arises: are we sufficiently preparing the country to take advantage of this and develop our economic structure in line with this opportunity?The fact that the South African State enjoys legitimacy and its government is based on the will of the people should count for something in terms political influence and  consensus building. Indeed it is political capital that neither the business nor the political elite should squander. The presence of political will is unquestionable, what is questionable is whether action is based on the political will. And increasingly, there has been criticism, quite correctly, on the reluctance of the private sector to play a developmental role commensurate to its capacity and potential.

We need to think creatively and develop fresh ideas, in line with Albert Einstein’s paradox that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. In so far as this concerned, I want to argue that the energy of the youth must be seen as a positive influence rather than a destructive force. It is in the synthesis of the youth’s energy and impulsiveness combined with the wisdom of the old that we can fully take advantage of the best that South Africa can offer. Neither the youth nor the old possess monopoly of wisdom.

Having argued all of this, there is plenty of evidence to prove that what we need are not strong or popular men and woman but rather, capabilities that will strengthen the state and its institutions, better to realise a prosperous future.

If South Africa’s development logic is anchored on a set of strategic logics that must submit to a consensus around a national development strategy, success may be within our reach in our lifetime.  Given the social problems we face, and signs of growing tension in society, the consequences of failure are too dreadful to imagine.

These are some of the questions that MISTRA’s public workshop on the evolution of the SA state.

David Maimela is a researcher at Mapungubwe Institute. He writes in his personal capacity. (This article first appeared on the Sunday Independent on 23 October 2011)

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