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Build a capable state, don’t just talk about it

- Kamal Ramburuth-Hurt

This is an adaptation of a speech given at the BUSA Business Economic Indaba in Sandton on Tuesday 14 January 2020.

In a speech given to the Business Unity South Africa Business Economic Indaba in Sandton on 14 January 2020, Kamal Ramburuth-Hurt, one of the young leaders invited to challenge delegates, argued that while there are weaknesses within South Africa’s political discourse, particularly in the lack of accountability, representation and vision – we are not in a political crisis. We have a functioning democracy that is alive and well.” Instead, he says: “The crisis in South Africa sits in the lap of our economy. Stagnant growth, crippling unemployment and gorging inequality deep enough for any kind of social compact to crash into violently.” This is what he told delegates:

As more and more of them fail, we are becoming increasingly aware that our state and its institutions are an integral part of strengthening South Africa’s economic growth. Over the past two decades, public expenditure has increased on Human Development (like healthcare and education); and on the upper end of the public wage bill – but both without corresponding improvements in outcomes.

So, our challenge may not be in our policy plans, nor in our levels of public expenditure. Our challenge is in implementation, which must be improved on through the state. This is especially frustrating because, following a decade of its deterioration caused by corruption and State Capture, we have to re-do a period of state-building. The success of our social and economic policy is heavily dependent on the institutions as well as the knowledge, skills and ethical standing of the people that fill positions in our states institutions and civil service.

There will be a direct improvement of our growth, employment and resulting welfare through distributional gains if we empower our state by improving the institutions that carry it and improving the quality of individuals that work in it.

There are two processes that the state can undertake to this end.

The first is throwing out the bad apples. Part of the ability of state institutions to function effectively is dependent on their legitimacy among various parts of society. For this, and the more immediate reason of cleansing the rot of rent-seeking officials, the state will be emboldened by successfully prosecuting those guilty of State Capture.

The first imperative to building a capable state is therefore justice. This requires us to put the corrupt in jail cells.

The second process is to build a meritocracy, ensuring civil servants undergo regular examinations and training to ensure that they are individuals with integrity, morality and strong leadership. This must be underpinned by high levels of skill and knowledge with consideration being made to life and work experience.

A meritocracy has the potential to reduce rent-seeking and corruption by depoliticising the cadre deployment system that has characterised post-apartheid appointments. While such deployments were necessary during our transition, they are becoming harmful. The patronage networks based on cadre deployment into the state are restricting the effectiveness of the state with resulting poor service delivery and developmental stagnation. This is a serious problem, with dire consequences for South Africans’ everyday lives.

A meritocracy will, therefore, reduce rent-seeking and corruption as well as improve the productivity and efficiency with which the state delivers outcomes.

A system based purely on equality without equity was not possible 20 years ago when a meritocracy would have reproduced a racist and narrow state. However, at this point in our history, we have enough skilled, progressive, young black people for such a system.

For this to work, the state needs to undertake a serious recruitment process that builds a state and fills it with officials and civil servants that are young, dynamic and professional. Following this recruitment, we must instil a system of continuous training, education and testing in order to build a culture of dynamism, innovation and excellence. We need a meritocracy, and are ready for one.

It is not enough to merely acknowledge State Capture within a historical narrative as part of the teething problems of a young democracy or a young state within the context of high inequality. Now is the time for the state to sharpen its teeth in every institution, so that when we speak of our developmental state – our bite is more vicious than our bark.

Kamal Ramburuth-Hurt is a masters student at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is the co-founder of Rethinking Economics for Africa, which is part of the international student movement for Rethinking Economics. This article was published in the Maverick Citizen.