Politicians should strive for less, not more, government

South Africa’s politicians need to implement innovative policies that can encourage citizens to improve their own circumstances. A characteristic of these policies is that the involvement of politicians is kept to a minimum.

South Africa’s politicians have a tendency of making big promises to voters, often requiring the government to spend and intervene “more” in public issues. If there is one lesson that voters should learn, it is that politicians who make big promises should not be trusted.

Many politicians in South Africa tend to believe that by “doing more” – either through increased regulations, taxes or policies – they can help make society better. There are countless examples to demonstrate this, such as Western Cape Premier Alan Winde wanting to pass more alcohol regulations, and Julius Malema wanting the government to go as far as expropriating people’s properties. Yet, the most progressive solutions for South Africa’s problems are ones that require politicians to avoid thinking in terms of spending yet more public money and wielding more power.

One reason is because increased expenditure often leads to more wastage and debt. This is detrimental to society because it ruins the financial health of the government, a critical public institution in delivering services to communities across the country. Over the decades South Africa has reached debt levels that surpass R3 trillion. By forcing politicians to curb their spending, South Africa can avoid treading down the path to becoming a bankrupt state that would end up relying on loans from Bretton Woods institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

South Africa’s rising debt levels, which arise in part from the government’s ever earnest desire to “do more good”, is beginning to cripple key areas of government. In the Free State, communities have lost their access to water due to the local municipality’s poor spending habits. Furthermore, in Mpumalanga alone, the department of health’s debts could come at the cost of medical equipment needed to treat patients. A critical lesson for the Left in South Africa is that you cannot “spend” communities out of poverty. Helping people to escape the cycle of poverty can be achieved through supporting market policies that create opportunities for all.

When politicians “do more” by implementing ideas they think are good for the public, the effect is often the opposite of what is intended. According to the BBBEE Act, the purpose of the law is to help create space in the economy for black people, after centuries of economic exclusion. But this law has neither helped black, coloured and Indian people find jobs nor helped them to become employers who create them. Instead, it has created circumstances that dissuade foreign investors from bringing their money into the country. This causes South Africa to lose out on the jobs and opportunities needed to enrich the economy. In this way, the bill has helped to perpetuate economic exclusion for the people it is meant to support.

South Africa’s politicians need to implement innovative policies that can encourage citizens to improve their own circumstances. A characteristic of these policies is that the involvement of politicians is kept to a minimum. How this can be achieved is illustrated by the policy proposal created by the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR), called Non-racial Economic Empowerment for the Disadvantaged (NEED). In terms of this alternative empowerment policy, tax revenue would be channeled into vouchers for citizens, which would allow them to choose their own housing solutions, their own doctors, and schools for their children. If this policy were implemented, politicians would have limited control over the huge sums spent on healthcare, education and housing, which are prone to high levels of irregular expenditure, waste and corruption  

South Africa could learn important lessons from South Korea, where the government launched the Saemaul Undong Movement in 1970. This movement’s aims were to assist South Korea in overcoming poverty and to modernize its society. Another aspect of the policy included trying to change mindsets, to promote self-help and diligence. Under this policy, the government gave communities their own cement supplies so that they themselves could improve their infrastructure. The limited availability of resources encouraged villages to compete with one another in order to receive more from the government. The dividends were plain:  85 000 km of road were built between 1971 and 1979. Farm household income increased from an average of ₩255 800 to ₩1 531 300 over the same period. South Africa should implement a similar policy to help communities - development would be achieved without politicians undermining the government’s financial status by wasting money on “doing good”.

South Africa, it seems, is burdened with a “big man” mindset among politicians that leads them to assume that they are the only ones who can promote community development. This has come at a significant cost to society, bearing in mind that many institutions are in a shocking state of debt. To change this problem, South Africa needs to implement policies that will allow communities to take their fate into their own hands. There are many policies that embody the self-help principle and can be adopted by the government. These policies include, for example, the IRR’s NEED voucher-system and South Korea’s Saemual Undong.



Cover image source available here.