Governance Watch

South Africa’s state governance imploding

Breaking South Africa

South Africa’s state governance structures have been crumbling for some time and dangerous implosions have started to occur on several fronts.

The most important sign yet of what is happening, came with the massive crisis and threat to social stability developing around the South African Social Security Agency(Sassa) and the possibility that some 17 million of the most vulnerable people in the country might not be receiving their social grant at the end of March.

It would, however, be a serious misjudgement to think that it is only Sassa and the Department of Social Development that is in trouble.

Other news

The Sassa crisis totally overshadowed other recent disturbing news – from the drainage of experienced officials at the South African Revenue Service (SARS), to the call by a parliamentary committee for a minister to be relieved of her duties, down to police and emergency vehicles being left immobilized because of the non-payment of a supplier of a tracking system.

Likewise, it would be a mistake to think that the Sassa issue is just about a contractual dispute or disputes.

Considering that the Constitutional Court (CC) already in 2014 gave Sassa and the department 36 months’ grace to sort things out, and that officials only 30 months later began working on a “transitional” plan, tells the story of gross mismanagement and dereliction of duty.  

The fact that the responsible minister, Bathabile Dlamini, last week chose to hold a news conference while her officials were appearing before parliament’s standing committee on public accounts (SCOPA) – declaring that she did not need to account to the committee – adds contempt of parliament to that of the CC.

And, while the meeting was in session, the director general (DG) of the Department had to excuse himself because he was summoned to Pretoria to meet with President Zuma – an indication of normal protocols being ignored.

At the end of the week the DG, Zane Dangor, announced his resignation, saying the reason was essentially a breakdown in relations between himself and the minister over disagreements on Sassa's legal obligations to the Constitutional Court.

Also last week, Communications Minister Faith Muthambi was a no-show at a meeting of an ad hoc committee of parliament on an ongoing crisis at the SABC.

The relationship between some members of the executive and parliament, charged with holding the executive to account, is clearly disintegrating.

As a clear sigh of the lack of proper planning and strong leadership, Sassa also last week, lodged an application with the CC for an extension to the Cash Paymaster Services contract, only to withdraw it within 24 hours – followed by another application.

For one, by then a substantial amount of fruitless expenses in legal cost must have been incurred.

In the process, Minister Dlamini has also displayed contempt for the constitutional principle of the rule of law. In the initial application (later withdrawn) Sassa, in an affidavit signed by the minister, effectively told the CC that it has no obligation to it.

Removed from reality

How badly disconnected from reality various levels of governance in the country has become, showed when President Zuma declared his full confidence in Minister Dlamini – on the same day that she in a statement to the CC finally accepted some responsibility for the Sassa mess.

To what extent President Zuma himself has become isolated from reality, including from what is happening inside his own party, was clear when, also on Friday,  addressing the opening of the non-elected Council of Traditional Leaders, contradicted the ANC’s parliamentary caucus on the question of expropriation of land without compensation and changes to the constitution to make it possible.

To boot, he did so playing the “race card,” saying “black parties should unite on this issue.”

In this context, considering how many South Africans are effectively excluded from acquiring individual property rights on land, leader of the Congress of the People (COPE), Mosiuoa Lekota, posed a legitimate question – ironically at the celebration of 20th anniversary of the signing of the constitution in the parliamentary complex where Zuma was speaking.

“If you want to take our land from us, to whom are you going to give it,” Lekota asked.

Also read: Land expropriation, wrong end of the wealth stick

The Zuma administration also took on an air of random unpredictability when he, also last week, seemingly out of the blue announced that he is removing three members of the Judicial Service Commission.

Loss of expertise

The Sassa experience also highlights to what extent the ANC’s policy of so-called cadre deployment and the disappearance of the divide between political- and party structures have robbed the South African state of crucial expertise.

In one of the avalanche of statements, reports, and affidavits off late, minister Dlamini and Sassa stated that it “was not ready to move forward due to budget constraints, insufficient internal capacity and a lack of skilled personnel to implement the plan in the time frame it had contemplated.” (Our emphasis.)

South Africa in deep trouble

What the “Sassa-event” is telling us, is that governance in South Africa and its future as an orderly state, is in deep trouble – and that time to turn it around is running preciously thin.

 In an article on The Conversation website last week, Richard Calland, Associate Professor in Public Law at the University of Cape Town, wrote: “South Africa is fast approaching a crossroads at which it will have to choose between structural reform and a lurch to populist nationalism. So, too, is its governing African National Congress (ANC), which later this year must elect a successor to its president, Jacob Zuma.

He comes to the conclusion that South Africa’s social compact, which culminated in the signing of its constitution 20 years ago, “is at breaking point.”

ANC at core of problem

In May last year we wrote: “When a request to the Minister of Public Service and Administration for an independent public inquiry about claims of undue pressure on official is directed to a political party’s headquarters, something is very seriously wrong.”

That, remains at the core of the country’s present problem – the extent to which the ANC, and particularly a faction within it – has been allowed to capture the structures of state.

Unless political leaders from across existing party political divides, including from within the ANC, step forward very soon to build a new political construct, South Africa runs a serious risk of becoming a full-fledged “failed state.”

by Piet Coetzer

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