On the politics of interference

Members of the national legislature during a sitting. Picture: Armand Hough / Independent Newspapers

Members of the national legislature during a sitting. Picture: Armand Hough / Independent Newspapers

Published Mar 4, 2024


By Busani Ngcaweni

Much of what we today know as social contract theory – the underwritten relations between the governed and those who govern – has its origins in Book II of Plato’s Republic. Said to have been authored around 375 BC, the Republic is an exposition on the character of the city-state, governed by justice, in the public’s best interest. According to Plato, the ideal state comprises the people, soldiers responsible for defending the State and enforcing the law, and rulers or ‘guardians’ who, among other things, uphold social order and make important decisions about the welfare and future of the polity.

The characteristics of those chosen to be ‘guardians’ in the Republic give one food for thought, some 2,000 years later, as we reflect on the nature of the modern body-politic in South Africa. Sharp senses – endurance, wisdom, courage, moderation and not being concerned with ‘love of honour’ and ‘love of money’ – are some of the virtues extolled.

Notwithstanding this, the Republic also lays out another utopian ideal called ‘One Man, One Art.’ Here, the idea is that everyone keeping to one’s function, specification and aptitude (and executing that well) gets the work done more efficiently and effectively.

Again, we must emphasise ‘executing it well,’ as the best artists do when they have mastered their craft. In the discipline of public affairs, that is called mastering statecraft.

In the Republic, this antiquated version of staying (and excelling) in one’s lane is a crucial tenet of political harmony and order. It unites the city-state and prevents its deterioration into factions. Those with perverted ideas are easily undressed and exposed for who they are: peddlers of disunity. In this ideal polity, ideas are a source of hegemony, not the hard power of the office.

When everyone is allowed to get on with doing what they are good at and qualified for, it is not just the body politic but the single unitary whole that inevitably prospers.

As I sit atop the once majestic but now hoodlum-infested Inanda Mountains, being tempted with crocodile steak that is most likely poached from the nearby Inanda Dam that fed suburbs for years whilst snubbing its surrounding villages, one reflects with trepidation on certain events unfolding in our Republic. You cannot avoid being abstract under such despair. The other option is political despondency. At worst, we can employ metaphysics to rationalise our national situation; many people already say our country is forsaken by the gods.

A combination of Plato and modern theories of public value may offer reasonable explanation of what drives the looms of our governance entanglements.

We find ourselves in a situation where overreach and interference are in no small part contributing to bedlam and confusion in our institutions. Such untenable situations used to be treated as hearsay, then allegations, but now our reality is that news travels fast and bad news even faster. Commissions of inquiry and the courts have made findings about this overreach and interference by politicians, board members and accounting officers.

A day or week seldom goes by without news of yet another fallout in a public institution, the reality confronting colleagues and other people seeking to secure and deliver value from those same institutions.

Suffocating those seeking institutional stability and continuity cannot be in anybody’s interest, let alone the interests of those elected or appointed to exercise oversight. Yet weekly, we read stories alleging that politicians (shareholder representatives) and directors (both Executive and Non-Executive) are meddling in operations, blurring the lines of accountability, and disabling those who ought to exercise their art dutifully with care, skill and diligence. Why, then, do we have this acute sense of déjà vu as we witness these same scenes being played out time and again?

Despite the numerous complaints of overreach into operational processes by those who exercise oversight, there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel. For quite some time, it has been painstakingly argued that we need a better separation of roles. In any event, many in political office express that they appreciate the imperatives of separation of roles and that this is how they operate. There is even overwhelming support for legislative amendments currently under way. Yet we continue to witness institutional fallouts, which shows we must be missing something, which may not be cured merely by the letter of the law. Voices reverberate in these mountains: ‘Please stop meddling with our institutions and rendering them marketplaces of incoherence!’

Perhaps we are naïve about what needs to be done to secure institutions from the politics of unwarranted interference and capture. We have assumed that since we understand the broad outcomes to be produced, those in charge of operations will be given the space to act, implement and deliver without interference-Au contraire.

Nevertheless, what we are witnessing suggests that other values may be at play. One could go as far as to infer that those exercising oversight may be inclined towards interference to secure the interests of constituencies or external parties. These contestations in our institutions have bred instability at best and paralysis at worst and are derailing strategic objectives.

Perhaps part of the solution to increased contestation between those who need to exercise their political authority by enmeshing themselves in operational processes lies in re-conceptualising the public value to be produced by our institutions. Maximising political value beyond a focus on outcomes seems almost inevitable. Perhaps our definition of the value to be produced requires some level of shifting to accommodate expectations.

As a result, re-establishing the stability and continuity elucidated in the Republic must exist as a necessary precondition for the social contract to have meaning. It goes without saying that the social contract between those who govern and the governed is undermined when the state apparatus is weakened by its institutional in-fighting and contestations.

While we cannot ignore the overall outcomes that institutions must produce or the necessity of ensuring consensus on them, it seems obvious that many look for more value when exercising oversight. Merely focusing on utilising resources and delivering supplier or client demands opens the door for informal machinations and influence peddling we are witnessing. An open discussion on other unarticulated values is definitely required.

It seems that the people elected and appointed to oversee institutions such as boards of public entities are motivated to look the beyond outcomes and instead concentrate on the benefits that may be derived from internal operational practices.

In addition to an open discourse on the operational value derived from internal practices, we need to create a higher level of transparency and ensure that we ethically incorporate other values from those who exercise oversight. It is worth emphasising that ‘recasting’ the value that needs to be produced certainly does not imply accommodating those perennial interferers to secure their acquaintances’ private interests.

Strategic deliberations on the work of public institutions need to include dialogue on the value of operations for broader constituencies, such as suppliers or contractors. Our strategic deliberations should include reflections on an expected value from operational practices. In that case, those who exercise oversight should be compelled to agree on processes to deliver such value. Such intervention will force them to recognise that the best interference is to exercise oversight in compliance with agreed processes regarding such practices.

We must move beyond confining strategic deliberations at the political or board level to issues of mandate – and seek clarity on the public value to be produced for society. We must incorporate deliberations on the operational model and the value produced for employees and suppliers.

While discussing the working modalities and related value commitment, we could and should engage in open deliberations on how oversight is exercised and associated protocols. We need to mainstream all the value motives of those in political office and those exercising oversight. Having open and honest deliberations would go a long way towards disarming anyone seeking to pursue value in dark corners or to exercise informal influence in the offices of impressionable junior officials susceptible to influence.

It is clear that we are in a complex and somewhat depressing situation regarding securing our institutions. We cannot, however, throw our arms up and demand that the political world gets its act together. We must find ways of striking the essential balance. Screaming from the highest and most idyllic hills in Inanda is an easy option. The more challenging option is to engage the political and administrative worlds to create new modalities of cooperation to deliver on the promise of a better life for our people.

I know by now you are salivating at the prospects of names being dropped here. I will not do that. Names of people and institutions caught in the quagmire of interference and overreach are well known. They too, know themselves. I am merely pricking their moral senses. A new compact may be what is needed.

*Ngcaweni is the Head of the National School of Government. He writes in his personal capacity

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL