Joel Netshitenzhe. Picture: Handout/Supplied.

Failure to organize itself into an effective instrument of rapid growth and development will lead to the state becoming irrelevant, rejected as a “mere dispenser” of patronage, “mocked as an instrument of pork-barrel regional or ethnic ‘delivery’” and “attacked as a defender of super-exploitation”.

It was a stark warning, but as Joel Netshitenzhe told his audience, “the arrival of the worst in our body politic may not announce itself by knocking on the front door”.

Netshitenzhe, executive director of the Mapungubwe Institute and ANC national executive committee member, said this when he delivered the 10th Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture in Cape Town this week.

Unethical conduct by leaders in government, business, the trade union movement and the rest of civil society, the impression of a lack of respect for public resources, and “the ostentation of the elite, delegitimize not only the party political and societal leadership, but also the state”, he added.

He said the National Development Plan – adopted by cabinet and backed by all political parties – should be implemented urgently – and decried the lack of coherence over economic policy and an “indecisiveness” over taking hard decisions.

In a penetrating critique, Netshitenzhe raised questions about the current state of the state after 18 years of a black political elite striving to re-order the distribution of income and wealth and improve the lives of all.

He drew parallels with the Afrikaner nationalists who, after coming into power in 1948, had used affirmative action to translate their political dominance into improved lives for all their people, and to wrestle control of the economy from the hands of an English-speaking elite to become the ruling class.

This saw some climbing the economic ladder faster than others, causing discontent and tensions that culminated in the falling-out of the 1970s, the broedertwis.

Today’s white ruling class had “begrudgingly” courted the new political elite, ceding some economic power.

At the same time, “stratification and inequality have intensified within the Black community; and the disquiet of the mass is manifesting on a grander scale… as reflected most recently in the Marikana tragedy and the ensuing mineworkers’ revolt”.

Levels of poverty and inequality in South Africa, which would be present for a long time, were the “tinder ever ready to catch fire”.

At Marikana, where both the state and mine owners had seemingly “washed their hands”, it was the lack of hope that tomorrow would be better that was the “spark that sets the tinder alight”.

Uniquely, the Afrikaners could use job reservation, land dispossession and other forms of racial discrimination and super-exploitation of black people, to accord white lower classes privileged status. Not so the ANC.

Its task was to eliminate such exploitation, a much more massive task given the “inherited impoverishment of the Black majority compared to the ‘poor-white problem’ of yester-year”.

Failure to do this “has the potential to unleash a conflagration a million times more destructive than the broedertwis,” Netshitenzhe warned.

“While the state has played an important role as an instrument of redistribution, its effectiveness… is hampered by poor capacity, patronage and corruption,” Netshitenzhe said.

Cabinet’s adoption of the National Development Plan and its commitment to stick with the plan where there was a conflict with existing policies and programmes was one “striking instance of progress”.

The other was the monitoring and evaluation capacity set up in government and its potential to ensure accountability and implementation.

But ensuring these two initiatives became “truly embedded” was an urgent challenge.
Netshitenzhe, a member of the National Planning Commission which drafted the blueprint for the country’s trajectory to 2030, said Vision 2030 should be “so popular and so legitimate” that on the 2014 elections hustings, all parties should be asked how their manifestoes aligned with it, and what they planned to do in the five years of their mandate to ensure it was implemented.

“And the performance of government should be monitored against that yardstick… while we should take Cabinet at its word, all of society should be the guardians of, and active participants in, ensuring that the plan is implemented.”

Creating a social compact in which all sectors of society committed to facilitate high economic growth and social inclusion was crucial.

“This demands activism across all sectors and preparedness on the part of the broad leadership to weigh trade-offs and to make choices for the common good.”

“It requires the will and the acumen to eschew self-interest and leadership capacity to accept and communicate decisions that may not entirely be popular with one’s own constituency,” he said.

It was “critical to avoid the danger of devaluing the notion of a social compact by confining it merely to immediate responses to a wave of strikes or even short-term measures to minimize the impact of the current global economic crisis.

He said this was one of the weaknesses of the agreement brokered at the recent high-level summit of government, business and labour leaders on the mining crisis – which also “does not at all refer to Vision 2030”.

Because states were complex, a central institution was needed to drive economic policy and its implementation.

“One of the weaknesses in the South African state… is the multiplicity of centres from which economic policy is driven – Economic Development, Trade and Industry, National Treasury, Public Enterprises and so on – with each actually believing that it is the ultimate authority.”

The state needed to provide leadership across society, buttressed by a professional bureaucracy “insulated from undue political interference and patronage”. It should have “the will to break logjams” and “prevent narrow sectoral interests paralyzing the capacity… to move forward.”

Deadlocks between social partners should be expected in a society such as ours, Netshitenzhe said. But Nedlac – set up to resolve differences between government, labour and business – had become “fossilized in its approach”.

“Each constituency pursues frozen mandates; representation has been juniorised and the interactions technocratic.”

Paralysis around efforts to deal with youth employment reflected this malaise.

The state was “too indecisive to act autonomously of the interest groups” to even roll out a pilot of the youth wage subsidy, “the better to address concerns that currently are discussed only in theoretical terms”. Working groups of government and a range of social partners had been jettisoned, “worsening levels of mistrust across society”.

Netshitenzhe said questions about the state’s “legality and legitimacy” should not arise given the constitution, the separation of powers and institutions that protected and enforced people’s rights.

“But in the context of the Marikana tragedy and the ensuing mineworkers’ revolt, we may need to drill deeper to assess whether, unsighted, there aren’t worms eating into the very edifice of the state colossus.”

“(W)e need to examine the sturdiness of the system of rule of law in relation to the most ordinary citizens all the way to the highest echelons of society."

“When strikers and demonstrators carry weapons and… murder others with impunity; and when an impression is created that court orders are not honoured, we need to ponder whether the ‘threat of threat’, combined with civilized and intelligent conduct that should underpin state hegemony is not in fact hollow – ready to unravel in insidious but profoundly destructive ways.”

More was needed than the “so-called black economic empowerment to which ‘economic transformation’ is usually reduced”.

“The time has come… for the political elite and the ruling class together to contribute to forging a stakeholder capitalism in which the working class is a real beneficiary,” he said.

“It will require commitment on the part of all sectors of society to facilitate high economic growth and social inclusion, encompassing the totality of things required progressively to attain a decent standard of living for all.” - Political Bureau