Political Challenges

Despite our proud Constitution and the independent institutions that buttress democracy, including the Human Rights Commission, the Constitutional Court and the Judiciary, there are disconcerting signs in our political system.

The party system

The country has benefited from a ‘single dominant party system’ that saw the ANC dominate Parliament with more than a two-thirds majority for the past 10 years. A weak ruling party or fractured coalition in the early phase of our democratisation, would have strained our fragile democracy. The benefits of a strong single party, with a reasonable approach to national issues and a reconciliatory approach to the opposition, formed the backbone of the new democracy.

However, this ‘single dominant party system’ comes at a cost. In the long-term, it generates potential threats to democracy; a sense in the dominant party that “power is its birthright”.

The conflation between leader, party, government and state in the ruling party discourse creates a sense of hierarchy and arrogance that is disconcerting. The roles of leader of the ruling party and leader of government are distinct and the President of the Republic should represent all citizens in the country, regardless of political affiliation.

The ruling party’s domination is a result of weak opposition parties. In general, opposition parties in South Africa have yet to establish electoral credibility. They complain about a oneparty state, forgetting that such a situation is a reflection of their own failure. It is not the function of the ruling party to create opposition to itself.

Another critical element of our political system that strengthens not so much the ruling party but politicians in relation to ordinary citizens, is the country’s proportional representation system. In terms of this system, voters elect parties rather than representatives, and elected representatives owe first fealty to their party leaders rather than to voters. Voters have no direct representatives and politicians no direct constituents.

On the other hand, were it not for a proportional representation system, especially in the early days of our democracy, opposition parties would have been even weaker than they were in the first three legislatures. In a “winner takes all” system, like the constituency system, the ruling party would probably have secured a majority even greater than the two thirds it has won in the last two elections.

Lack of leadership

Weak leadership is evident in all sectors of our society.

Political leadership has failed to mobilise society behind clear and achievable objectives. We also lack a common national identity or sense of the public good.

The private sector, especially big business, has missed opportunities to be a constructive architect of the future. Instead it has adopted the view that “what is good for business is good for the country”. Business has by and large treated transformation as an additional cost of doing business, rather than as an investment in the future. At the same time, it has tended to adopt a somewhat “grovelling attitude” towards government, failing to confront it on certain dubious policy choices. Too often the private sector has sulked behind government’s back, while applauding it in public.

Trade unions display similar weaknesses. Their rhetoric notwithstanding, unions too often have no sense of the common good beyond their membership. They have failed to demonstrate the link between some of their programmes of action and job creation. As in the private sector, the unions’ attitude is “what is good for the workers is good for the country”.

Lack of leadership

“We don’t have a clear vision and objective as a nation. That’s a function of a lack of decisive leadership. A lack of visionary leadership exists across the whole spectrum, not just among politicians.”

The initial though rudimentary sense of common purpose involving government, labour and the private sector has all but dissipated.

Reference has already been made to the strength of South African civil society, which was at its height in the 1980s. Yet since 1994, communities have become increasingly reliant on the government and appear to have lost their sense of initiative. They have become extensions of the state and reinforced the view that criticism of the state is “counter-revolutionary”.

The media too has failed to rise to the challenge of reconstruction. Rather than being selfcritical, it has tended to become self-righteous. It remains critical and independent, but has failed to share in mapping the way forward. The institution as a whole has failed to hold itself to the same high ethical standards it has set for government. As in many other countries, there has been a general “dumbing down” in the media, and the national broadcaster has increasingly shown signs of becoming a mouthpiece of ruling-party factions.

Many professionals across the spectrum are steeped in the blame syndrome. Few seem prepared to take responsibility for the future. The fault, in their view, lies not with themselves, but with either affirmative action or apartheid. The only issue of concern to the majority of black professionals is self-serving BEE. The culture of voluntarism, from which the majority of black professionals have benefited, has all but disappeared and has been replaced with a culture of entitlement.

Religious organisations were once voices of poor people. However, since 1994, with a few notable exceptions, they have lapsed into their comfort zones and are preoccupied exclusively with the after-life.

This litany is not exhaustive; it is simply indicative. All sectors of society, both public and private, have contributed to the current situation. Similarly, it will take a concerted collective effort to reverse the trend.

State incapacity and lack of public accountability

The capacity of the state is deeply uneven. There are pockets of excellence, notably the Treasury, SARS, the IEC and the Reserve Bank, but there is a marked lack of capacity in several government departments at the coalface of service delivery. The accountability and financial management of the public service is severely compromised. In the 2007/08 Report of the Auditor-General, a mere 21% of national government departments and 5% of provincial departments received an ‘unqualified audit’, with 70% of the poor audits due to ‘mismanagement of capital assets’.20

The Home Affairs Department has received ‘adverse audits’ for the last three years and has a vacancy rate of 34%, creating a chronic culture of unaccountability and non-delivery. An internal audit revealed that 70% of Home Affairs officials failed a basic competency test.21

“The lack of state capacity is worse at local government level where a study revealed that 79 out of 231 local municipalities, and 4 out of 47 district municipalities, had no technical or engineering expertise.”22

Fifteen years into democracy, the electorate has yet to call the ruling party to account for non-performance. Until that happens, mediocrity will continue to be rewarded. The
transformation of the civil service took the form of a “liberation dividend” largely to a group of activists who had never previously run any major institution. After the diversity of the Mandela era, the ruling party reverted to rewarding party loyalists and failed to draw on the expertise of experienced South Africans; thereby depriving the country of healthy human resource dividends.

The conflation of party and state by the ruling party has led to the politicisation of the public sector and runs counter to the provision in chapter 10 of the Constitution that 'public administration must be accountable and transparent'. The politicisation of senior public sector appointments and political interference in the functioning of independent institutions undermines the constitutional provisions which speak to the creation of an impartial public service that should function 'without fear, favour or prejudice'.

There is a critical skills and managerial gap in government and many civil servants display a lack of commitment to serving the public. This has created a deficit in the culture of delivery, performance and transparency promised by the Constitution. Instead, a culture of mediocrity, incompetence, fraud, corruption, nepotism and entitlement prevails. We are also confronted with the unintended consequences of the country's BEE strategy which has created a small class of elite beneficiaries with little broad-based impact.

Spirit of South Africa's Constitution

“Corruption is a cancer in every country but in ours it is exacerbated by a sense of entitlement linked to a sense of deprivation from the past, as well as unintended consequences of BEE, such as fronting and the misapplication of affirmative action.”

Economic growth, health and education delivery, maintenance of infrastructure, processing of official documentation, and criminal justice are all undermined by inadequacies in the management and skills of our civil service; thus betraying the pledge in the Bill of Rights to ‘promote an efficient public administration?

Economic growth

The lack of state capacity, together with a lack of accountability to citizens, a lack of ethical political leadership and a disengaged citizenry, lies at the heart of South Africa’s economic and social challenges.


A major challenge facing the country is that of forging a common sense of nationhood and a common sense of destiny. This challenge is made more urgent by the persistence of racial inequality and low inter-group trust. White people and minority groups feel unwanted because of affirmative action policies. African people still suffer from a deeply ingrained inferiority complex born out of 300 years of colonialism and racial oppression.

"We have not created a sense where African people are proud of who they are."

We have not confronted the question of how one manages race in a non-racial society. The attachment of inequality or privilege to racial or ethnic difference has created a personal investment in seeking redress.

The policy of affirmative action is a double-edged sword. The lack of affirmative action caused resentment; its existence today does the same. The issue is not whether affirmative action is desirable or not. In fact, the manner in which it is articulated in the BBBEE Codes is noble in intent, especially in the types of barriers to entry that it attempts to remove.

It is however, the detrimental economic and social consequences of its implementation that need to be dealt with.

The source of resentment of affirmative action is in the manner in which this policy is abused across the board. Where cynicism, corruption and lack of accountability are rife, this policy becomes counter-productive. In the private sector, the policy is largely about statistics and compliance. Similarly, the public sector employs this policy as a tool for patronage, nepotism and corruption.

A major challenge facing South African leaders is the will to build one nation across racial or class divides. Until South Africans unequivocally forge a single common identity out of our diversity, we will not be able to harness the social capital needed to address our critical challenges. Likewise, until our political leaders are able to separate the interests of the ruling party from that of the state, for so long will we be impeded in the task of building our democracy and our nation.

When dealing with questions of nationhood, it is tempting to focus on identifying and reconciling differences, and not on addressing the issue properly.

We need to consider the following questions: Firstly, what do we all have in common? Secondly, what are our common aspirations and what do most South Africans want of their nation?

What then are the 'common characteristics' of South Africans, which cut across society as a whole, and that are relevant to building plausible economic, social, and political scenarios? The characteristics sketched below are not necessarily definitive. Of greater importance is that they be sufficiently challenging and provide a useful basis for a constructive national debate.

In general, South Africans are religious, family-oriented, moderate and traditional. South Africans have a distaste for political extremism. Since the 1994 elections, extremist parties have all but disappeared.

South Africans are seldom too proud to acknowledge mistakes and reverse them. The negotiation process which began overtly in 1990, and the ultimate settlement, followed upon a realisation by South Africans that we were on a path to nowhere. The reversal process, wholly internally managed, was unmistakable and single-minded. We are able to make radical social changes with remarkable nonchalance. The former United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan observed that:

"South Africa is a country in which one can expect the unexpected. An inspiration for all. What made it possible was the determination of the people of South Africa to work together. to transform bitter experiences into the binding glue of a rainbow nation."23

South Africans are hierarchical, and inclined to obey and trust authority. In general it takes people long to disobey and rebel, but when they ultimately do, they do it with passion and intensity. We are also hard-working, gritty and tough, very competitive and push hardest in adversity or when we are down. We hate to lose and can wait a long time to get our own back. Even our national soccer team will demonstrate this feature eventually.

We have in our different, if not strange, ways a cultural cringe or inferiority complex which predisposes us to seek the approval of outsiders. This is not unusual though in a young country. Both the ANC and the National Party, have relied on external endorsement, mainly the West, for their identity. The National Party argued that apartheid conformed to all critical elements of Western democracy, while reflecting the reality of African conditions. Similarly, the ANC was sensitive to a "terrorist" label from the West. This psychological dependency has the effect of acting as "checks and balances" on the country, as well as reflecting our own inner standards. South Africans have yet, if ever, to develop an attitude of "This is the way we do things here, like it or lump it". We are at heart conciliatory, despite our hardships.

This may also mean that, regardless of party alternatives, the country is strongly inclined towards a liberal democratic system. We already notice the emergence of personal aspirations that are informed by middle class values; values that promote personal growth, meritocracy, competitiveness and the striving for a better future for oneself, family and community. These values and aspirations are not restricted to one class or racial group but are held by the majority of the population across all artificial group definitions.

If these observations are correct, then these trends can be expected to play a role in the shaping of the country. We believe that going forward, an appropriate perspective on nationbuilding requires a keen alertness to both the centrifugal and centripetal forces at play in our society. The centrifugal forces pull us apart while the centripetal forces draw us together and foster nation-building.



Perspectives from members of the Dinokeng Scenario Team.

Why are we feeling so disempowered? It’s because the power we have now is different to the power we used to have. Our power derived from the political movement; our reach was bigger. The power we exercise now has a different reach. Why are we reluctant to exercise our power? It’s because it means taking on ourselves, our government. It’s like rebelling against your own parents. We gave power over to the leaders with the expectation that they would deliver.

The boundaries between the ruling party and state structures have become blurred. State structures are held captive by the ruling party.

As a nation we have consciously or unconsciously lowered our standards of what we expect of our leaders. We have settled for mediocrity.

Corporate South Africa believes that it has already done much to address the economic questions. We suffer from contradictory perceptions of reality. Black people believe that not enough effort has been directed at the economic problem. This is a situation that is just waiting to explode. We have all failed to address the basic contradictions of our society.

Unions have become corporates, managing massive investments. Who is speaking on behalf of the poor?

There is something of a trophy culture going down; big car, big house. It’s all me, me, me and the wealth that I can acquire in as short a time as possible.

The Afrikaners used the police to deliver. The black middle class uses ADT. They only go to the police for case numbers. They are alienated from society’s key institutions – hospitals, schools and policing.

A glaring challenge is that the skills we have are not being used to full capacity and we are also not generating the skilled personnel that we need.

We must stop the flawed process of appointments in the civil service – jobs for pals, blind loyalty, compromising on skills and quality.

Take Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital as an example. People fear that they will die if they go there. Public institutions are losing credibility and legitimacy. They are not trusted.

The opposite of rewarding loyalty is to reward competence. Why are incompetent civil servants seen as advancing transformation if they keep a person in the township waiting ten months for their identity documents? Incompetent civil servants punish poor people!

Citizens can’t have the state reflecting their needs unless they are pressuring it.

Let’s stop the motorcades. It should be an honour to be in the public service, it gives you great standing. We should be a nation of servant leaders.

The roots of our economic and social problems have not been addressed. As a result, whites are richer, blacks are poorer. Whites have more options.

We are not making use of everyone. Everyone wants to help. Afrikaners want to help.

What kind of society do we want to be? How do we want to define ourselves? The Constitution is good, but what does it mean in practice? We are not living it.

The Public Protector has found that a black investment holding company, Chancellor House, is in fact an ANC front and that it had procured a multi-billion Rand contract from Eskom to manufacture boilers at the Medupi plant. This kind of systematic corruption and abuse of state resources to benefit a political party undermines the noble intentions of equity legislation. In all cases, the losers are ordinary South Africans, black and white, male and female.

This Dinokeng process has reminded me of the uniqueness of South Africans, in that we have an endless sense of compassion, love and optimism.

There is a gritty determination to our national character. There is a resilience and tolerance.