Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article that featured in the Sunday Times on 18 October, 2020.
A lot has been said about the so-called triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality besetting South Africa. The one problem that is not being mentioned is that the country suffers from the erosion of the legitimacy of the state. In his book The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau defines a social contract as an agreement between the government and its people, where people give power to the government in exchange for the protection of their rights. If the government misuses that power, then people should replace that government.
In South Africa, we have not succeeded in building a viable social contract. To get out of the social and economic quagmire that we find ourselves in, which has been worsened because of the COVID-19 and rapid technological changes – due to the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) – we need a new social contract. Our people must play their part. For example, dirty streets so ubiquitous in our towns and cities indicate that state-owned companies such as Pikitup might not be effective in picking up the garbage. However, it also means that our people are also not taking their duty of keeping our environment clean seriously.
Recently, a picture depicted people destroying a highway with picks and shovels. Predictably, the root of the grievances was service delivery failures. The fact that in a democracy, citizens who have the power to employ and dismiss the government through democratic means are resorting to violence and anarchy to get government services means our democracy needs serious introspection. Of course, South Africa is not the only democracy that is facing severe challenges. The US President Donald Trump has also intimated that if he loses the election, he might not vacate the office. Democracies are serious, and if we do not nurture them by strengthening the social contract, they will disintegrate.
South Africa’s economic challenges require a social contract to resolve. Our tax collection has dropped by almost R300 billion. Our civil service remains bloated and inefficient, and the unemployment rate is 29%. These are scary statistics, and soon enough, we shall have a crisis in our balance of payments, and consequently, our shops will become empty. This is what happened in Zimbabwe, where even if you have money, you cannot use it because the shops are empty. Balance of payments is a statement of all transactions in a country and the rest of the world. For instance, when we import a cellphone, that amount that is debited from our national account is reflected in the balance of payments. So, if a country runs out of foreign reserves, it is no longer able to buy goods from outside the country, resulting in empty shops.
So, what is to be done? Firstly, South Africa needs to reform its public sector. Recently, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) demanded that the salary increase agreed three years ago should be honoured. This is even though there is a significant drop in tax revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If the social contract was strong, would the workers not recognise that the situation is not ripe for salary increases?
Secondly, there is a call to restructure the public sector fundamentally. One criticism of the government is that while the public sector is bloated, the country’s track record of service delivery is poor. Bloat, of course, does not equate to efficiency or accountability. The real concern is that the public service is fundamentally inefficient. It is a given that reorganisation of the sector and control of public expenditure is vital in the context of low economic growth. The expected outcome of restructuring the public sector is organisational efficiency and effectiveness. This requires a careful analysis of how departments are structured, in a way that speaks to our current context. The call is not for new public management but the redefinition of the public service for a new 4IR world.
Thirdly, there needs to be a view of increasing local production. This requires a limiting in the import of luxury goods in favour of imports that can be used for production. In his maiden State of the Nation Address in 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa wore a locally made suit to make an impassioned argument for local production. Cape Town and Durban were once big hubs for textile production and clothing manufacturing for consumption by South Africans. However, with greater global availability and ease of supply chain management, cost became a significant factor, and our policies in government put a nail in the coffin for the clothing manufacturing industry. In the last few decades, manufacturing’s contribution to GDP has dropped significantly, effectively resulting in the deindustrialisation of South Africa. The recommendation of the 4IR commission to establish the Advanced Manufacturing Institute will explore how to deepen automation so that South African companies become competitive.
Fourthly, we need to increase local agricultural production by deploying digital technologies of the 4IR. South Africa has become reliant on food imports, particularly given the challenges that climate change has brought such as periods of intense drought. The 4IR does not merely provide tools for efficiency, but it presents a unique opportunity to interrogate how we can transform the industry as our natural environment deteriorates. For instance, artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to combat disease and pests, which have been made worse by climate change and pesticide use.
Fifthly, we need to remodel our parastatals, which are largely inefficient and drain the public purse. For instance, we have an almost dysfunctional post office, which has not moved with the times. The definition of a post office is a place where post arrives, but the world has changed, and with it, the post office has been assigned different functions such as payment of licenses, courier services and limited savings accounts. Locally, they have not been remodelled or restructured. This is not an argument for the privatisation of these functions, which takes away from the public good. Instead, it calls for repurposing and repositioning of models in meaningful ways based on the fitness for purpose principle. Denel, which is the largest manufacturer of defence equipment in South Africa and operates in the military aerospace and landward defence environment, could start producing consumer goods, making it a viable business model.
Sixthly, we need to reduce wastage and curb corruption. The Zondo Commission into ‘State Capture’ and the recent arrests by the Hawks provide us with an insight into the billions looted from the public purse. With 4IR technology, for instance, it is possible to have iron-clad systems. For example, we can deploy AI systems to analyse data from multiple sources and identify irregular activities associated with third parties, employees, and customers. AI is much more proficient in wading through emails, text messages or audio files. The technology is premised on its ability to recognise patterns and thus to identify anomalies. It also can predict future risks and identify fault lines where corruption is possible.
Finally, to achieve this, we need to create a culture of meritocracy. In a meritocracy, political power is a consolidation of individuals who exhibit talent and achievement rather than wealth, nepotism or patronage. In other words, we hire and reward those who are the most competent rather than the most connected. For instance, in the United States, following the assassination of President James A. Garfield, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was passed, which requires government jobs to be awarded on merit based on competitive exams rather than political ties. In China, for example, the emphasis is placed on education, examinations and political experience at lower levels of government, which is then carried into higher levels of government.
These are solutions that can be posited if we are to restore the legitimacy of the state in South Africa. For Rousseau, the survival of the country is the only guarantee of liberty, but this requires the people to guard that liberty and not relinquish their freedoms. As Rousseau put it, “As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State ‘What does it matter to me?'” the state may be given up for lost.”
Prof Marwala is the author of the book: Closing the Gap: The Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa. Follow him on twitter at @txm1971.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.