Terence Corrigan: Brace yourselves, the future of SA might not be pretty - News24

If nothing else, the State of the Nation Address emphasises the extent of dysfunction in South Africa's governance. This came out strongly on this platform last week.

Terence Corrigan

If nothing else, the State of the Nation Address emphasises the extent of dysfunction in South Africa's governance. This came out strongly on this platform last week.

Notably, there was little attempt to defend President Cyril Ramaphosa, the incumbent government or its record. Melanie Verwoerd (‘Better the devil you know, than the devil you are petrified of’, 15 February) came closest, although to argue that the president is a lesser evil than the alternative is less a fulsome endorsement than an appeal to the Rooi Beret Gevaar.

The arguments implied in her piece are that the ANC under Ramaphosa remains the best bet for the country, that the party is turning a corner on accountability, and that coalition governments are likely to produce instability. The first two contentions are difficult to support.

The president has very little to show for his nominal 'reform' efforts and has ruled out some essential interventions, such as abandoning cadre deployment. As for the new-found commitment to accountability, we've heard this before. ANC MPs may have been repelled by plans to sponsor a British football team, but they demonstrated a fact-lite, business-as-usual approach to André de Ruyter on a more important matter.

Fragmented, multi-ministerial approach

Other commentators – Livhuwani Nemakonde and John Travis Marshall (‘The Disaster Management Act is not a panacea for all governance failures in SA’, 11 February), Daniel Silke (‘Ramaphosa's high-stakes SONA’, 13 February) and Qaanitah Hunter (‘An exercise of political cowardice, but let's give Ramaphosa his electricity minion’, 14 February) – argue that Ramaphosa’s strategies for dealing with South Africa’s crises will yield scant results.

Rather, they seem geared to present an image of resolve and to buy time – though to what end is unclear. Little being undertaken holds much promise of dealing with the very complex issues at hand. This is especially the case with the political and governance questions: the idea of a 'single line of march' to handle the power malaise is unconvincing.

Everything points to a fragmented, multi-ministerial approach, with a new ministry operating alongside a state of disaster under the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Eskom at Public Enterprises (or a new holding company), and the omnipresent Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy doing his thing. Already, Minister Gwede Mantashe has said that the electricity minister will only be responsible for getting Eskom’s Energy Availability Factor up, while he will remain in change of new procurement.

That seems like several lines of march.

There needs to be more sense that racial empowerment or hiring practices will be abandoned to keep the lights on. The line of march follows routes already taken.

Verwoerd is, however, correct to an extent on coalitions. As the ANC's dominance slips, it will not be able to form governments unencumbered. Inter-party dealing is going to be necessary. It will also be messy and potentially destabilising, as recent events in Johannesburg and unfolding events in Ekurhuleni illustrate.

The choices are unattractive. As Pieter Du Toit argues ('The case for the role of the state (but not under ANC management, thanks)', 16 February), the ANC has shown itself a venal and incapable steward of the state. Its obsession with political control and the politicisation of the public service, 'cadre deployment', undermines prospects of an ANC-led turnaround. Its governing philosophy unites Ramaphosa and the so-called RET faction.

A difficult decade ahead

Yes, an ANC-EFF coalition would be a nightmare. The worst impulses of both would have free rein, underpinned by a common view of the state and justified by 'historical missions'.

An opposition coalition built around the Democratic Alliance would be more palatable. Verwoerd lets this acknowledgement slip through in an offhand comment dismissing the notion that a displaced ANC would yield to 'some version of the Western Cape all over South Africa'. This idea evokes mixed reactions for many commentators, who acknowledge the DA's better record in managing actual governments but loathe it as a political contender.

It is unclear whether the DA could muster the numbers to do this; probably not as things stand now, at least not on a national level.

There is some polling evidence that a grand coalition – DA and ANC – might be attractive to many on both sides, although equally off-putting to others.

In any scenario, the accumulated weaknesses in the state will make governance difficult, possibly more so under an opposition-inclined government. This has been intrinsic to how the ANC has governed. 'Change’ is not something many politically invested and even criminal interests would welcome.

So, expect a difficult decade ahead. The question really will come down to whether a future government is willing seriously to meet the challenge of administrative reform and institutional rebuilding – after decades of purposeful state capture by the current governing party.

State's limitations

To imagine that such action would come from the ANC or EFF is not credible. In the absence of a viable coalition at national level, it will be necessary for local and provincial-level coalitions to soldier on as best they can, to be strategic in the choices they make and to do what is possible to shift the existing institutions towards what they need to be.

This will be a tough process of learning. There are no guarantees for South Africa or its future. But ultimately it is the best that can be hoped for right now.

In the interim, South Africa’s people must accept the limitations of the state. Du Toit’s comments are apposite: a competent state is an economic and developmental asset. Stale rhetoric aside, South Africa lacks this, and under current circumstances, will not develop it. The manner in which the state is structured and run – an outcome of the ANC's ideology – makes this a non-starter. As frustrating as it is, localised (and increasingly state-proofed) solutions will need to be developed. When conditions change, the relationship between the state and citizens can be renegotiated.

Ultimately, it will be up to South Africa's people to push for this to happen. The aphorism that 'you get the government you deserve' is an apt one in South Africa. It is South Africans who will need to decide whether the current dysfunction is the best that is possible or whether to take the hard line of march to something better.

Terence Corrigan is the project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.