How does the state provide for its citizens? With the 2024 general election looming, and with the ANC lacking a proven track record of delivering services, this has emerged as the most important question facing the ruling party. How he answers this, and how he can communicate it persuasively to the electorate, could determine whether the ANC wins a majority or is forced to assemble the first governing coalition in the history of democratic South Africa.
On this subject, there are broadly two schools of thought. After World War II, the question was addressed by the unprecedentedly ambitious emergence of the welfare state. Across Europe and the UK (and in South Africa, for the white minority), big government was salvation. Governments have invested in state education, state-owned energy utilities, national transportation infrastructure and universal health services. The fixed retirement age and state defined benefit pension schemes have been expanded.
The social contract between the ruling elite and the electorate was simple – keep voting for the capitalist economy, under the guise of liberal democracy, and with the welfare state, the government would provide a safety net for all citizens, no matter how much or how little taxes an individual might pay.
With the welfare state, all citizens—regardless of their wealth—were entitled to an equally good education for their children, health care for their parents and a generous pension when they retired in their mid-60s. Needless to say, such lofty visions of global welfare states were rarely realized in practice and collapsed, often under pressures of achievement or financing, or both. The exceptions that prove the rule that welfare states cannot provide are the Scandinavian social democratic utopias. Thousands of pages have been written about why welfare states don’t work, but this is not the place to explain them.
By the 1980s, everything had changed, and a second school of thought had emerged. The two most influential economists of this anti-Keynesian reform were Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, whose landmark text The path to serfdom I became idolized by this group of monetarist market purists.
Perhaps the most extreme example was the “Chicago boys” of economist Augusto Pinochet in Chile, who used “shock therapy” to push radical market reforms. Ronald Reagan famously said the most terrifying word in the English language is, “I am from the government and I am here to help.” Margaret Thatcher duly followed.
What emerged is the “user pays” principle. If the state is unable to deliver, why not just cut taxes, shrink the state, and outsourcing? Privatization, and whatever the citizen wants, make him pay for it. Lower taxes and a business-friendly environment would lead to faster economic growth, and in theory everyone benefits. This was the “rising tide lifts all boats” policy.
A lot has changed since those halcyon days, but if one lesson has been learned, it would be that “flow-down economics” don’t work as well. These policies, encouraged by globalization, unleashed thirty years of unprecedented wealth inequality. Gore Vidal said that neoliberalism simply means social democracy for the rich and capitalism for everyone else.
South Africa was, of course, an active participant in these economic debates and experiments, perhaps the most notable of which was the shift from the welfare state model of Nelson Mandela’s Reconstruction and Development Program to Thabo Mbeki’s blueprint for neoliberal growth, employment and redistribution.
Indeed, one of the most tragic symptoms of the current malaise of Strategic Offense is the dearth of sheer argument. He made a lot of the hollow man that is Paul Machattel and the ANC as a whole. While it is never perfect (one has only to read Johnny Steinberg’s wonderful book Winnie and Nelson For glimpses of how flawed but capable the party was), the party is now like a snake eating itself, starting with its own tail. Concerned with rent extraction, the party devours his soul.
Political analyst Nick Boren may be right. A poor performance in next year’s elections will be followed by an alliance with the EFF” last election [the ANC] More than ever, for two reasons: South African voters are not stupid, and it would hurt the investor and the bond markets.” Thus, what is required is an ideological reset.
Educationally speaking, the difference in trust in South Africa between the state and the private sector is significant. According to Bloomberg, it is the largest in the 28 countries surveyed. The dearth of faith in the public sector can be turned in favor of the ANC. To win the election, the ANC could define the SA’s vision as not a full-blown “user pays” neoliberalism, but at least one in which the inefficiencies of the state are recognized and the private sector reset from bogeyman to useful protagonist.
First, I declare that the days of bloated bureaucracies are over. If there is one thing almost all South Africans can agree on, it is that there are far too many state employees who are overpaid.
Second, to reset Ibrahim Patel’s Department of Trade, Industry and Competition from being a hindrance to economic growth to a laissez-faire facilitator in the private sector.
Finally, actively engaging with the private sector in education, healthcare and infrastructure. Agree on common goals and how best to outsource what is not currently being achieved.
This will take courage and will not be popular with many. It will remove the fodder pool from thousands, but it will increase the economy. It would undoubtedly be acceptable from an electoral point of view.
Desperate times for the ANC demand desperate measures. As Bismarck observed: Politics is the art of the possible. The question is whether Machatel is the man with enough courage and political skill to enable the seemingly impossible ideological reconfiguration. we will see. DM