Political Watch

State of the nation – who is in charge?

Who is in charge.jpg

South Africa has sufficient policies to take the country forward, but it is really about the capacity to implement them: the critical need for people, systems, structures and finances that can create meaningful shifts.

The country’s biggest impediment, however, is the quality of education. “The standard of education in many places is so bad that it counts as a form of child abuse.”

That is the conclusion of Prof. Daniel Plaatjies, one of the editors of the 2016 edition of the Human Sciences Research Council’s (HSRC) biannual publication State of the Nation. The subtitle of this year’s edition is “Who is in charge?

It is a collection of articles from some serious thinkers in the country about South Africa’s policy direction, its institutions and governance – a collection of peer-reviewed academic works.

Its focus is not on the news of the day per se, but rather on the deeper questions of what kind of a country we are building. It is not just a question about state capture or the undermining of key institutions, but about all those who influence policy and regulation, and to whose benefit they are doing it.

It gives an important backdrop against which the upcoming nationwide municipal elections should be judged. These elections are leading up to the most important election in the country since the 1994 election, which delivered the country’s first real, broad-based democracy.

As we argue in another article in this edition of The Intelligence Bulletin, the elections of 3 August are likely to take the political substructure and power relations of democratic governance in the country in a new direction.

“There is a continuous contesting of power relations in South Africa,” explains Prof. Plaatjies. “Hence we are asking, what are the interests here? Which interests are being promoted relative to the public interest?”

The premise is that despite the gains the country has made, a large proportion of its citizens remain vulnerable, particularly economically.

“The aim of the book is to suggest to South African society and to the South African state that we need a dialogue about this country’s future that produces material value to the poor,” Plaatjies says.

“It confirms the importance of the role of our constitutional institutions and the important interventions that they make in a number of areas, but it also laments in many ways the lack of capacity in the state.”

This is a key theme, as the implementation of any policy is dependent on both the ability and the will to deliver.

“We have sufficient policies,” says Plaatjies. “It’s about the capacity to implement them – the critical need for people, systems, structures and finances that can create meaningful shifts.”

It is in this context that one of those things that Plaatjies laments most, is the quality of education in the country, leading to his “child abuse” conclusion.

“There is a problem when teachers themselves are unable to pass a test that they put for their learners,” he says. “You expect the teachers’ understanding to be beyond the subject matter.”

He believes: “This is not to underplay other forms of abuse but I think it is problematic because it poses the question of who buys the best forms of education, who buys the best access to healthcare?”

It is the middle class and those richer than the middle class. “The poor always have to fend for themselves, and the trickle-down approach of the economy through the restructuring trajectory we are on has not delivered.”

Ultimately this returns to the issue of the urgent need to reform the economy so that it is more inclusive.

“Spaces have been opened up to give a couple of beneficiaries of black economic empowerment entry into the economic space, but there has been no trickle-down to South African citizens,” Plaatjies argues. “The idea in 1994 was that one of the benefits of the democratic dividend would be a trickle-down and that a social compact between all factors of society post-apartheid would ensure greater quality of access. And in some ways that has happened, but disproportionately it hasn’t happened.”

The question inevitably returns to why not. Why have the changes in South Africa not materially benefited the majority of its citizens?

This is the essential issue, and Plaatjies argues that it is really this and not poor service delivery that is driving the growing number of protests around the country. Having been marginalised for too long, communities are asserting themselves.

“I think asking who is in charge is a great rallying point for the majority of the poor, and the poor I am talking about are across the racial divide,” Plaatjies says. “It's for white people and black people to say ‘hey, I have the same problem as you across the road. The only reason I’m staying on this side of the street is apartheid, but I have the same economic problems you have’.

“It’s a great opportunity to undercut these questions of why we are the same, but different,” he concludes. “This is about us, about our state, our society and our economy. And people can then call the bluff on those who pull the racial card.”

(This article has heavily drawn on and quotes from an article by Patrick Cairns, which was first published by MoneyWeb.)

by Steve Whiteman

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