Friday, 15 May 2015

Year of government since elections: buffeted by crises and lacking a sense of urgency

The government elected in 2014 has faced inordinately tough conditions in its first year. Worse, these conditions come at a time when South Africa's ruling party seems less agile, affected by the sins of incumbency.

This year has been very busy in political terms. The Eskom crisis hit, affecting all South Africans and pushing up the levels of frustration. Government faced an unprecedented situation in Parliament, where new Economic Freedom Fighters disrupted the normal way of doing things and gained significant public support for it.

The economy continued to be afflicted by poor performance. Global factors are largely to blame, but our omissions and mismanagement with respect to Eskom also play a part. As a result of electricity supply problems, one economist cut his GDP growth forecast from 2.9 to 1.9.

Government has also encountered problems in parastatals, generally. The problems at South African Airways do not impact on South Africans broadly (although the costly bailout will affect all in unseen ways). Not so the Post Office (where services broke down due to strike action) and SASSA (where for-profit service providers continue to unlawfully strip money out of bank accounts of grant beneficiaries).   

At the same time, protests of different types continue to flare up. There are the numerous community protests that erupt and die out. There are also student protests and several waves of xenophobic violence. All this upheaval points to an increased demand for redistribution or for more dramatic transformation.

Faced with such challenges, government departments cannot operate at the usual tempo. They have to accelerate on all fronts if government aspires to notions of responsiveness and effective governance.
In several key areas, we see bold ideas and innovation. In relation to both the Department of Cooperative Governance and SALGA, we have seen strong moves to ensure better management and less misuse of government resources in local government. Despite negative responses from many mayors, Pravin Gordhan has put the need for urgent reform at the top of the agenda. SALGA is pressing ahead with key measures. It wants to ensure there are “consequences” for managers and other staff who fail in their duties at local government level. It also wants to see stronger community oversight over key projects.

In health, Aaron Motsoaledi continues to work tirelessly to improve hospital services, to chip away at inequality in the health sector and to lead health promotion campaigns.  

The Gauteng Province also stands out as a government unit that is formulating bold plans to overcome problems of delayed redress. The premier David Makhura launched his programme for revitalising township economics and its Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi has unveiled ambitious plans to improve schooling in the province.

Numerous civil servants and government units are continuing to do important work. Daily, hundreds of South Africans get their identity documents and passports in good time (even though the department concerned is sluggish when processing permit applications for migrants and refugees). The Department of Basic Education continues to provide daily learning to over 13 million learners in over 30 000 schools. Without denying the massive infrastructure gaps (many sustained by provincial shortcomings), the national department is pushing programmes to help teachers implement the new curriculum and to face up to shortcomings.

Nonetheless, the surge of disenchantment from unemployed youth, those waiting for RDP homes and those caught between rising costs and modest wage increases means that performing at the same pace is not enough. It means the old level of service delivery, even from good departments, will not be sufficiently recognised. For hundreds of thousands of South Africans – many of them angry – business as usual does not cut it.

And if governance means ‘the capacity to formulate and implement sound policies and systems that reflect the interests of local citizens’, continuing in the current mode translates into deepening of governance problems.

The ANC government has several policy options that it could use to respond to tackle the pressures, but it does not implement them fast enough. For example, government is winding down delivery of RDP houses and is, at least in policy terms, ramping up the provision of rental housing. It has, again and again, vowed to increase beneficiation and has most likely considered making selective use of tariffs to nurture certain economic sectors. In relation to electricity, government has aeons ago talked about facilitating access to equipment that would allow hundreds of thousands to make greater use of solar energy. Government has gained brownie points for reopening the land claims process, but the surge of new applicants will add to backlogs.

Even where there are good ideas that can have transformative impact, implementation is usually far too slow. Often implementation is held up by squabbles between competing interests (the set top box story), by massive costs overruns (building costs for schools in the Eastern Cape), by constant changes in key staff (various departments) and by a widespread and politically-motivated unwillingness to hold functionaries accountable.

During the last year, government has come face to face with major fiscal constraints. Many government programmes are inadequately funded. Many departments and municipalities try to manage this by slowing down delivery and waiting for further funding rounds.

As the ruling party, the ANC’s main challenge is to get ahead of the game. With looming problems in the labour arena, frequent conflict in parliament, an upsurge in xenophobia, ongoing community protests and infighting in the security cluster, it is easy to be constantly distracted. It would be easy, especially with over 60% support in the last national elections, to rely on a few good departments to keep government support up in perception surveys. But a more effective strategy would be to increase the number of bold, transformative initiatives and to push government departments to implement their many good plans with a much greater sense of urgency.

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