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UJ’s Prof Tshilidzi Marwala explores the effectiveness of a politicised society

Something as complex as the prosperity of nations cannot be explained by just one variable, and indeed, it is a combination of many factors, writes Professor Tshilidzi Marwala.

The Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the author of the book, Closing the Gap: The Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa, recently penned an opinion piece published by the Sunday Times.

Stifling politicism sucks the life out of African societies – Prof Tshilidzi Marwala

Kwame Nkrumah, the first Prime Minister of Ghana, which was the first African country to attain independence, once said: “Seek ye first political kingdom, and all else shall be added unto you.” Thus, he ushered in an Africa where politics became a fashion statement, adorned by many and damned by few; a continent that is dominated by politics at the expense of all other vital factors such as the economy and technology. Today, some 60 years odd later, the nominal gross domestic product (GDP) of Ghana is $70 billion with a population of 31 million people. Now, compare this to Singapore’s nominal GDP of $392 billion, with a population of 5.7 million people. Singapore is even richer than South Africa, which has a nominal GDP of $370 billion and 60 million people. At the time Nkrumah uttered these words, South Africa and Ghana were much richer than Singapore. It seems the “all else” that Nkrumah promised did not follow.

The concept of politics dominating all spheres of our lives is called politicism. Here in South Africa over the last few days, there has been intense public attention on what the national executive committee (NEC) of the ANC was going to do about corruption, following the latest revelations of rampant pillage of Covid-19 personal protection equipment (PPEs) involving government officials aligned to the governing party. The fact that the future of South Africa depends on less than 100 people to such an extent means that politicism is increasingly taking hold, becoming a defining feature of South African society. Because of the shrinking economic activity outside of the government, the South African economy is increasingly becoming centred around the state. If this trend continues, then the South African economy will increasingly shrink, and soon enough the capacity to afford the civil service will be compromised. This is because as the economy shrinks so does the tax base, which is the only source of revenue for government.

A few days ago, on Twitter, I asked the following question: Is politicism, the belief that politics should be the hegemonic driver of development, compromising our country’s economic, technological and social development? Fifty one percent of the 100 respondents answered that indeed politicism has a damaging impact on our society, while 25% responded that it is not damaging our society, and 24% did not know how to answer. Though these results are far from being statistically significant, they do indicate that our people are quite keen for South Africa to start being visible in other areas of our society, such as technology and the economy.

Why is politicism not effective? Firstly, because an entity as complex as a nation-state requires multiple skills and capabilities to function. In many countries, the skills of political leadership are one-dimensional, producing people who think and talk alike. Any system, such as a country that is driven by a one-dimensional mindset, will always fail spectacularly. In finance, Harry Markowitz came up with the seemingly obvious concept called portfolio theory. Portfolio theory states that to minimise risk, you need to invest in many assets (a diverse portfolio) as opposed to one. This is akin to an old African proverb that states “two heads are better than one” in tackling a problem. Markovitz decorated this old idea with fancy mathematical concepts, which saw him win the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Countries that work are those where leadership is distributed across many spheres of society. For a country to work, you need technologists who are operating at the top of their game. The impact of their work should change the lives of a multitude of people. Recently on 28 August 2020, Elon Musk, the South African born and Silicon Valley-based engineer who founded Tesla, unveiled a device that is inserted into the scalp of a person to read brain activity. The implications of this invention on real-time measuring of sugar levels, early diagnosis of Alzheimer and brain tumour are significant. What people like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are doing is creating a culture of leadership on a substantial scale, influencing people at a considerable level. With politicism, we cannot grow the same technological leadership dimension that we see in the United States and China. This filters into South Africa’s ability to compete globally, resulting in deindustrialisation, job losses and economic contractions.

Another dimension of leadership that we lack because of politicism is in the arts. While the arts, whether it is theatre or painting or sculpting, looks non-essential and “a nice to have”, they are incredibly crucial for establishing a creative culture that can spill over into technology, economy and society in general. It has been generally believed that leaders such as Steve Jobs were half artists and half technologists. When Jobs founded the company Apple with Steve Wozniak, the latter concentrated on technology while Jobs focused on the design, which requires competence in the arts. In fact, the look and feel aspect of Apple devices defines its products up to this day. This is because technological progress is a faster equaliser than aesthetic characteristics.

Extreme politicism quickly descends into corruption, as is the case in South Africa. If all economic activities around the state shrink, then the clamouring for access to the state becomes hypercompetitive. The fact that many people who gravitate towards the state are regulators or have direct and indirect control of the regulations makes the whole system fall prey to manipulations easily. A few days ago, I asked the following question on Twitter: Though there are pockets of successes, why has post-colonial Africa mainly been a failure? Of the 707 people who responded 78% thought it was because of corruption, 11% thought it was because of the legacy of apartheid while 7% thought it was because of lack of education, and 4% thought it was because of lack of investments. Something as complex as the prosperity of nations cannot be explained by just one variable, and indeed, it is a combination of many factors. Furthermore, the timing of my question was such that there was plenty of conversations about corruption. Therefore, this could have influenced the outcome of this poll because of the psychological concept called availability bias, when people assume the likelihood of an event based on the ease with which examples come to mind. Corruption sub-optimally allocates resources away from the assets that are required for production and economic expansion.

Many people ask a relevant question: if politicism is so bad, why is China a phenomenal success? Why do the consequences of politicism not apply to China? This is because China has a strong and effective state, which explains the country’s success. Furthermore, China is meticulously selective when choosing its leaders. Many of these leaders are high achievers who were at the top of their classes. The culture of studying is embedded in China’s leadership, with many leaders taking time to go and study in what they call party schools as well as in leading international centres. The curriculum in these party schools is astonishingly modern and usually about the economy as well as China’s new ideology, which is based on technology. Therefore, China is more a meritocracy than a politicism state. As Henry Kissinger noted, China is not just a country but also a civilisation. Now, compare that to the ANC’s OR Tambo School of Leadership. On the other hand, is it even worth it?

What now for South Africa? We need to move towards building a meritocratic society rather than a politicised society. We need to invest seriously across the board on education. We need to develop a productive rather than a consumer economy. We need to diversify our leadership in terms of skills, race and gender. It is only through the “portfolio of skillsets” at all levels of leadership in our country that we shall have the necessary capability to lead South Africa efficiently.

  • The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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Prof Tshilidzi Marwala Vice- Chancellor & Principal of the University of Johannesburg
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