Thursday, 24 November 2011

On the Secrecy Bill

The first piece below is something I wrote-up for Business Day (and received the usual uninformative silence) on the core problem with the Bill. Following-on after that are some additional thoughts. One of the difficulties in writing this was figuring-out which of the many versions floating around on the internet was the one passed by Parliament; for those interested, the link is provided at the end.

Is logic, rather than public interest, the problem?

Like many people, I had until now been willing to take the protests against the Secrecy Bill (officially: Protection of State Information Bill) as correct, without actually resorting to reading the proposed legislation myself. Besides laziness, this was partly because the earlier version of the Bill sounded so blatantly problematic. However, since its redrafting – thanks to vocal opposition from R2K, media bodies and principled senior members of the ANC – many of the more conspicuous problems have been eliminated, and consequently the issues have become more subtle. Now that the Bill has been passed by the National Assembly, it may be valuable to take a step back and further examine some of the speculation around the intentions and outcomes of the legislation, in light of some details regarding its contents.

I would suggest that this is an area for lawyers more than anyone else (even civil society activists), but in the absence of any detailed commentary from the profession I would like to tread on their turf briefly. The reason is that the ostensible problems with the legislation are primarily related to its internal logic. This is pertinent because one gets the impression from legal minds who deal with government that the state is fairly incompetent when it comes to the drafting of legislation; that makes it hard to tell upfront whether we are dealing with malicious intentions or just stubborn stupidity. One the one hand, it is hard to believe that the timing of the reintroduced Bill relative to ANC resolutions at its Polokwane conference regarding the media is simply coincidental. On the other, if the intention was to target the media and its sources it remains unclear whether the Bill will achieve this, and we would need to credit the drafters with a high level of competence and deviousness, which seems unlikely given other experiences and previous versions of the Bill.

The concerns of the Right to Know campaign and others appear to centre around the fact that while the legislation specifically states that information may not be classified to hide governmental failures per se (including even ‘administrative errors’), and the section on penalties focuses most heavily on espionage and ‘hostile acts’ against ‘the Republic’, there are punishments detailed for receipt and transmission of classified information that make no mention of whether the information was correctly classified in the first place. At first sight, this seems like a simple logical mistake on the part of the drafters. It does not require a ‘public interest’ clause to remedy, simply a clause stating that if a courts find that the document was improperly classified – either deliberately, e.g. to ‘conceal breaches of the law’ such as corruption, or simply without adequate justification – then the person distributing or receiving the information cannot be prosecuted.

It really does seem logically incoherent not to have such a clause. But it does have substantive implications, as it might give a corrupt official a strategic advantage, in that while they risk punishment for incorrect classification, they can use classification to impose a risk of punishment on those concerned with the public interest.

The other pertinent aspect is whether the four forms of incorrect classification are sufficiently comprehensive. Admittedly, an additional clause states that classification ‘to achieve any purpose ulterior to the Act’ is punishable. However, it does not mention punishment for incorrect classification that cannot be shown to have been deliberately ‘ulterior’. Thus the legislation becomes more clearly asymmetrical: if you receive information that should never have been classified, you are still liable to severe punishment if the mere act of receipt or possession can be proved; if you classify information that should never have been classified then you are only liable to punishment if ulterior intent can be proved. It is generally the case that intent is harder to prove than something like receipt or possession; the axe is almost guaranteed to fall on the well-meaning journalist, but only on the corrupt official with about the same level of probability as there was of their corruption being found out in the first place. For corrupt officials, it’s almost a one-way bet.      

Minister Cwele’s reported statement on a public interest clause – that it would allow disclosure of correctly classified material – is itself logically incoherent. The existence of punishment does not, in itself, prevent anything; an individual could still choose to put even correctly classified information in the public domain. A public interest clause would only protect that individual if the information was, you guessed it, in the public interest. The real question then is whether the current provisions in the legislation – regarding classification and incorrect classification – adequately cover public interest issues. If they do, then we simply need the logical clause already mentioned, not an explicit public interest clause. If they do not, then the legislation should be thrown-out for that reason alone.

Given the Minister’s comments it is hard to see how the legislation could pass a test of its adherence to the clauses of the Constitution on access to information (‘the right of access to any information held by the state’), or even freedom of expression (‘freedom of the press’ and ‘freedom to receive or impart information or ideas’). In terms of intent, we can only speculate as to whether the Minister’s advisers and colleagues have malicious intent or whether they are just fools. How pathetic that it should have come to this.

Interestingly, if it can be shown that the ANC has persevered with the legislation to avoid ‘embarrassment’ to the organisation or individuals within it (one form of improper classification in the Bill), then it has arguably been party to an ‘ulterior’ purpose for classification of information and all MPs who voted in favour could logically (though perhaps not legally) be liable for prosecution under the very legislation they have passed. Now there’s an idea to conjure with...

Some additional thoughts

There are three other aspects of the legislation that concern me but have received relatively little attention. The first relates to a clause - so far entirely unmentioned in the commentary I have seen - on diplomatic relations. The second, is the scope for stacking of the Classification Review Panel which is supposed to oversee, and confirm the validity of, classifications. Finally, there is a provision on inducement of an offense which exacerbates the problems I raise above.

The first concerns clause 3.d. which states that information may be classified if its release would:
"seriously and demonstrably impair relations between South Africa and a foreign government, or seriously and demonstrably undermine ongoing diplomatic activities of the Republic". Pierre De Vos (see links below) has focused on how this could be used to hide foreign funding of political parties. But I think the forms of possible abuse are much more blatant. For instance, an official could argue that any information that shows the government denied the Dalai Lama a visa for Desmond Tutu's birthday party because of pressure from China could indeed 'undermine ongoing diplomatic activities'. But not ones that the country's citizens may approve of. More sinister is the fact that this is an open clause that would allow the concealment of the government's involvement in CIA-style renditions. It is no surprise that Australia - PM Julia Gillard increasingly trying to be the 'Tony Blair of the south' - passed this sort of legislation recently.

The provision for a Classification Review Panel, and the various criteria laid down for members of this, should be somewhat comforting. It excludes: "a member of Parliament, any provincial legislature or any municipal council", anyone "appointed by, or is in the service of, the state and receives remuneration for that appointment or service" and "an office-bearer or employee of any party, movement or organisation of a party-political nature", along with those convicted of various sorts of misdemeanours. The problem is, as we have seen from various bad forms of cadre deployment (I happen to think good forms exist but that's a separate topic), any such individuals can simply resign their posts and become eligible for appointment. Whether someone would do that, depends on the likely remuneration, but also personal and political benefits they might receive from serving certain vested interests. The power to appoint is, reading between the lines, held by the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence, which "must table a list of five persons for approval by the National Assembly". Given the dubious process of recent judicial appointments, this should not put anyone's mind at ease.

Finally, there is what i'll call the 'Lamo-Manning' clause. Section 42 states that: "Any person who attempts, conspires with any other person, or aids, abets, induces, instigates, instructs or commands, counsels or procures another person to commit an offence in terms of this Act, is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to the punishment to which a person convicted of actually committing that offence would be liable." The problem here is that, again, no reference is made to whether the the information was correctly classified in the first place. The reason for the name is that one of the reasons the US claim Julian Assange (of Wikileaks fame) committed a crime is because he induced Manning to leak the diplomatic cables - one presumes therefore that they have similar legislation. (As i've argued elsewhere, SA is behind the curve in terms of oppressive democracies; the US 'PATRIOT Act' is an example of how bad things can get). Based on that you would think that I would call it the 'Assange-Manning' clause, except there doesn't appear to be any evidence of Assange doing this (so far), but interestingly there is evidence of an FBI informant - Adrian Lamo - doing precisely that. 

My conclusion remains the same. There are very significant problems with the Bill, that could lead to the ability to classify being abused. It is still not wholly clear whether this is due to incompetent drafting, or malicious intent. One has to suspect that some combination is likely. That raises all sorts of interesting political questions - for instance, whether some in the intelligence agencies (who, recall, played a key role in Zuma's acquittal) may have been too keen to get rid of Ronnie Kasrils and his emphasis on transparency before he could develop the Bill further - but those would take us too far afield and into the realm of speculation.


The clause on diplomatic relations mentioned above as '3.d' should be 14.3.d.

Notes and links

The version of the Bill passed by Parliament is here
Ben Turok, one of the few remaining serious intellectuals within the ANC who apparently also avoided participating in the vote, was on the radio (SAFM) yesterday saying how difficult it has been for the public and MPs to be clear on what the legislation means given the many revisions (and non-revisions). Recent news is that 'the ANC' is threatening to take action against dissident MPs...

There has been some detailed legal comment on the Bill. The Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory along with Wits has produced this recent summary:

However, I don't feel that it gives a reader much of an idea of what the Bill looks like, and I think continues the superficial emphasis on 'public interest' without going into the details. I found the comment on a 'public interest override' more useful.

Pierre De Vos's blog is always good, though again I think he initially gets too caught-up in some of the hype. His most recent post, from earlier today, is better and more detailed but still misses the logical issue I focus on above:

E.g. He says that "
a limited public interest defence can be written into the Bill which will set out criteria for when classified documents could be lawfully possessed and published because it was in the public interest to do so". My view is that it makes more sense to prevent the classification of information unless it is in the public interest. Rather than allowing that and then putting measures in place to correct it. Admittedly, sometimes it is not possible to define public interest ex ante - and this is perhaps why maybe my argument is more 'logical' than 'legal' - but that doesn't seem a good enough reason to leave so much work for ex post processes.

De Vos's preceding piece touches on the issue briefly (5th paragraph from the bottom) but the emphasis is elsewhere:

Monday, 26 September 2011

How to Lose the Fight: Part II The Judiciary

It is fairly easy to establish that the relationship between media outlets and the representatives of the ruling party and government is untenable. Of course, there is always the possibility that the latter will succumb and, where the criticisms are justified, reform themselves accordingly or be replaced. Unfortunately, this seems the less likely scenario. Given the fact that the media have played a critical role in exposing corruption, lack of service delivery and inconvenient political realities, the alternative scenario in which it is fatally compromised by its own excessive hostility, tabloid-style reportage and insufficiently critical coverage of non-government actors is not a pleasant one to contemplate.

At least as disconcerting is the prospect of a politically compromised judiciary, of the kind we only recently began to slough off. In this second piece I want to argue that a very similar process to the one described regarding the media is playing-out in relation to that societal institution. Very recently there appears to have been some realisation of this possibility, for two reasons: the appointment of Mogoeng Mogoeng as chief justice of the Constitutional Court; and, the ruling of judge Colin Lamont on the singing of 'Kill the Boer'. Initial media reports on the latter painted the ruling as another blow to Julius Malema, but it was patently obvious to anyone with any feel for popular opinion that if anything the reverse was likely to be true. Sure enough, this realisation eventually trickled through and various pundits, as well as the DA, lined-up to do the improbable and criticise the ruling as a means of taking the wind out of the ANCYL's persecution sails. (It is far from clear to to me that these groups, or indeed groups like COSATU, would have been quite as critical in the absence of the Malema factor).

The Mogoeng Mogoeng selection also led to a few instances of regret and recrimination, because of course we would never have ended-up with him if there hadn't been such an, again somewhat hysterical, outcry initially around the reappointment of Sandile Ngcobo. Now, strictly speaking Ngcobo's reappointment would have been against the letter of the law. However, even without much knowledge of jurisprudence it seems simply obvious that it is rarely desirable to see existing laws as sacrosanct. If nothing else, that implies perfect foresight of the original drafters as regards possible practical eventualities, such as the one with Ngcobo. So while legal brains were quick to hail the Constitutional Court's ruling against the legislation that would have allowed Ngcobo to continue (see, for instance, the generally good blog by professor Pierre de Vos) as a victory for the independence of the judiciary, the President quickly dispelled such thinking with his nomination of Mogoeng. In particular, it made rubbish of the Constitutional Court's rationale for its ruling, that "What matters is that the judiciary must be seen to be free from external interference."

So much for that. Zuma has wielded his power anyway, although in choosing a former Bantustan judge over someone who was on Robben Island and appears to be a better candidate on merit, he has shown just how much the ANC is prepared to cut off its nose to spite its face. (This has also been done in relation to socially progressive legal minds like Geoff Budlender and others). Perhaps this is just knee-jerk politicking; "if the liberals like Moseneke then I will choose a bigot", or some such. However,  I suggest there is more to the ANC's behaviour (these views are as much those of the organisation as of the Presidency) than that.

In my mind, the origins of this behaviour can be traced back at least as far as the methods used by the Treatment Action Campaign, who conducted an extremely successful campaign for public provision of antiretroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS. What on earth, you might think, do they have to do with it? Well, it was the former chairperson of the TAC - Zackie Achmat - who spoke about 'getting at your judges outside of the courtroom'. And the TAC was extremely successful at doing this, with the assistance also of their friends in the media. Now, you might say, that was for a good cause. That's all well and good, but either you believe in the 'independence of the judiciary' or you do not. And the fact is that the founders of the TAC, along with those who have followed in their footsteps - from Afriforum to some others I will avoid naming for now - believe that the judiciary should be independent, except when it comes to issues they feel have self-evident conclusions. So, the logic would go, the judiciary should be independent except when it needs to come under moral suasion to rule in favour of antiretroviral roll-outs, since a wholly independent assessment may not yield the desired outcome. Needless to say, the argument is rarely phrased in this way, but I do not find it persuasive regardless.
Besides such blatant attempts at advancing lobby group agendas through personal relationships with the judiciary, there is the broader idea that seems to have spread through the South African liberal ether that the courts and the Constitution are the solution to government failing to uphold its obligations. In the short-run that may be true, but not in the longer term. As with many mistaken conclusions, these are based on mistaken premises. One of these is that the Constitution is sacrosanct. In some cases this is a genuine belief, in others the hope appears to be that by repeating the claim often enough it will become effectively true. Both, I would suggest, are dangerously flawed. The Constitution, the content of which I agree with almost entirely, was never a consensus document in its detail. Let me repeat that: the Constitution is not a democratic document. This is most evident when one contrasts public opinion on issues like the death penalty or homosexuality with the clauses of the Constitution or legal interpretation thereof.

The Constitution is a document that is a product of what some of us like to think are enlightened individuals and social processes, but it can be destroyed and undermined by individuals and social processes. Furthermore, the document is subject to interpretation by the judges of the Constitutional Court. These too are the product of certain social backgrounds and judicial selection procedures. In short: the Constitution cannot be seen as the last bastion of social virtue into which we can perpetually retreat to fight-off assaults and re-emerge triumphant. One day we may turn around only to find the structure itself compromised. And, indeed, that process may now have begun. One must also remember that the Court's status in society is less a function of law than of popular perception, and the willingness of enforcement agencies (such as the police and other agencies that actually fall under government) to ensure compliance with its orders.
I have been surprised to find that even individuals well-trained in law seem to neglect these obvious facts; the reasons are perhaps more psychological than logical.  

These issues do not only arise as regards legal action against government relating to Constitutional obligations, but can also arise in relation to civil society action against private entities. I have been tangentially involved in a recent attempt to use the courts to enforce environmental legislative protections on a private company that the government had seemingly decided to turn a blind eye to. That attempt received a significant setback when the government (who should have been the enforcers) and company came to an independent agreement – while the matter was pending in the courts. One can speculate on how this was achieved, but the company clearly found a way of bypassing the formal channels favoured by civil society. (This is of course another point often neglected by liberal commentators and activists: private sector entities have few qualms going along with all sorts of skulduggery provided they are able to secure adequate benefits for themselves). Much as one can get to judges outside the courtroom, so too can one get at civil servants outside of the office, or through their political masters. The law is an extremely slow, and surprisingly weak, tool when other institutions are opposed to its processes and conclusions.

Even where lobby groups like Afriforum do not have any influence on judges outside of the courtroom, they nevertheless bring to light the one very obvious sense in which the judiciary is never independent: the judiciary can only rule on cases brought to court. If there is any lack of representation in the issues that get brought before the courts, then to the layman judicial rulings may appear biased even if they have been essentially objective. This, along with the other issues outlined above, should give those groups who seek to enact social change through legal means pause for thought. Their short-term successes may sow the seeds of much greater social problems down the line. All too often such groups are completely inured to this kind of logic, because they are so taken with their own benevolence and moral righteousness.

So as with the media, it is not just a matter of ineffectiveness or bias. The strategies outlined above not only put implicit strain on the institutions through which the battles are fought, they also have the effect of painting a bulls-eye on each of these institutions as the prime obstacles to the advancement of individuals and groupings within the ANC and government. We have seen the effect of that in the case of quasi-governmental institutions like the Scorpions, and the continuing pressure on the Public Protector and Special Investigations Unit. While the Protection of Information Bill has been stopped for now, influential individuals like Pallo Jordan, Ronnie Kasrils and other ANC veterans who still genuinely believe in the organisation's principles will not be around, or have as much influence, for very long. The decision regarding the chief justice has been made, and the main body tasked with trying to maintain high quality judicial selection procedures - the judicial services commission - appears to have been stacked with intellectually shallow political yes-men.  

While there is a huge amount of effort expended in skirmishes like those around 'Kill the Boer', as I noted in my previous posts regarding the civil service, there is a singular lack of effort being made to ensure that government recruitment processes are such that they select the best and brightest. As I suggested there, this is partly because liberals are suspicious of government as an entity and would rather see its powers minimised. People are entitled to such an opinion, but there is little to support the suggestion that the size of the state can be significantly decreased in South Africa, or that the society is at a stage where that would be desirable even by those who might wish for this. More to the point, and this is where I am going with these two pieces, is that you cannot enact change solely from outside of government and the ANC. Any short-term successes achieved through attempts of this sort will be dwarfed by the long-term destruction of the institutions used to achieve those successes.

Already we have dangerous mutterings coming from senior members of the government and ANC. In a recent ANC Today letter, Bathabile Dlamini - Minister of Social Welfare - stated: "
The manner in which racist organisations are using spaces like the Equality Court to advance their narrow issues may result in the masses losing confidence in these institutions and lay the basis for backlash". Or consider Ngoako Ramathlodi's piece entitled  "The ANC's fatal concessions" in which he essentially appears to argue that having a progressive Constitution and civil liberties was due to a series of concessions that the ANC should now regret. He correctly identifies the issue of what cases are actually brought to Court, saying "a constitution can either be progressive or reactionary, depending on the balance of forces in the society it governs". His conclusion is then that "he black majority enjoys empty political power while forces against change reign supreme in the economy, judiciary, public opinion and civil society".

With the exception of the economic aspect, this is largely ridiculous given: a. the massive power wielded by the State; and b. the fact that civil society is no less the domain of the ANC and its affiliates than, say, the DA. What his conclusion actually reflects is the wholesale failure of the ruling party to make itself part of a dynamic, progressive civil society movement. The ANC is shunned by civil society movements across the political spectrum, but Ramathlodi and others who share his views don't care to stop and ask why that is the case. Furthermore, his conclusion reflects the failure to develop a competent and principled civil service that would not submit legislation that either aims to violate the Constitution, or is so sloppily drafted that it gets overturned by the courts.

These are, indeed, dangerous times. The ANC and government itself are increasingly compromised by incompetent and self-serving individuals in positions of power. The evidence and symptoms of this must of course be exposed and dealt with where possible. But every overly hysterical or self-indulgent media report or legal case ratchets-up the pressure on our key social institutions. Furthermore, we are going to need a lot more than legal cases and media reports to reverse the current trends. I suspect this will require some creative thinking and action on the part of those who would once have supported the ANC but now distance themselves from it. One way would be for that organisation to be 're-taken' by genuinely progressive rather than avaricious individuals, so that - for instance - we do not have individuals like Tony Yengeni heading-up the ANC's political school, or Jimmy Manyi acting as government spokesperson. The other would be for a new party to form. These are extremely difficult things to do successfully. Worse, these tasks are made harder by the ostensibly well-meaning, righteously hysterical groups that take-up a disproportionate amount of public space As always, it is the 'hard-liners' that prosper internally (in the ANC and government) from such attacks.

There are, then, no easy solutions. But those with good intentions would do well to look beyond short-term righteousness. Perhaps that is the one conclusion all parties could usefully take away from this analysis.

Friday, 16 September 2011

How to Lose the Fight: Part I

A casual survey of news and analysis over the past year makes it clear that a fight is currently raging whose outcomes will determine the trajectory of South African society for decades hence. The majority of citizens are, as is usually the case, watching from the sidelines - if they are watching at all. Many factions are so riven with internal battles that it is hard to discern who is fighting for what. This is of course compounded by the self-serving desire of many participants to hide their true intentions, whether these be of a pecuniary or political nature (or both). There is a lot to say about these battles, but I want to focus here on one thing: a particular type of approach which I believe is broadly well-intentioned in terms of its stated objectives, but which is, naively, in fact doing more to ensure that those objectives will never be met.

Behind this approach is a notion that government and the ruling party can be forced or coerced into doing ‘the right thing’. That force or coercion is exerted in three main ways: through critical media coverage and analysis; through legal action and judicial rulings; and through invoking the spectre of international condemnation. The point I want to make is simple: these methods will not only fail, but - if other things remain as they are - they will ensure the medium- to long-term failure of South African society on the very dimensions these actions are concerned with.

This claim may seem exaggerated, but I make it with some confidence. I can do so because since I came to hold this view almost a decade ago, the process has been taking place before our eyes. Initially, I was deeply critical of those involved in such actions. I continue to believe that many are misguided and motivated by certain prejudices and personal or political interests. However, an increasing proportion of this group – albeit still a minority- are fighting brave rear-guard battles for no reason other than their principled belief in the primacy of certain basic principles of good governance and justice. They are people who, based on their principles and competence, should be within the state machinery rather than outside it. (Why such people have found themselves out in the cold is an issue for a related, but separate, piece).

Nevertheless, the core claim will be sans caveats: The battle cannot be won solely from outside of government and the ruling party. It cannot. Nothing about the history and present state of South African society suggests this is remotely possible.

In the two parts to this piece I will outline – using the examples of the media and the judiciary – the rationale behind my rather bald claims. I will also discuss some reasons why the individuals involved in these actions are either unable or unwilling to recognise the limitations and consequences of what they are doing. Unfortunately, I have no easy solutions, but i’ll mention a few ideas on how – as individuals with principled concerns about the country’s trajectory – we might proceed.

Part I: The Media

Back in 2003 I had an (heavily edited) op-ed published in the Sunday Times in which I expressed concern that the obsession of the media with almost uniformly negative coverage of government would result in the latter institution hitting back; the analogy I made was with a donkey being constantly beaten. This seems now, if may say so, a little prescient. Its reception, however, served to illustrate the points I made rather well. I was subsequently invited onto a 702 talk show to debate the issue, and I declined this as I was reliably informed that I was not likely to get a decent hearing. On that show, Max du Preez – our self-styled ‘pale native’ and recent compiler of ‘thought leader’ opinions – declared the suggestion that the media had a responsibility to report on positive aspects of government as “the biggest load of crap I have heard in a long time” (I paraphrase slightly). After his fall-out with the SABC, his hostility should perhaps have been unsurprising. The problem is that it represents all-too-common a view in that profession.

However, I suspect the majority of our population are of the view that the news media, as a social institution, exists to report balanced information. Those who take du Preez’s stance tend to also bemoan government advertising and ‘propaganda’, without ever addressing the question of where the public is supposed to get objective information on good things done by government. Nevertheless, du Preez’s attitude serves as an excellent illustration of a deeply embedded stance within the South African private media; the media is there to keep government in line. Furthermore, it is not a watchdog of the highly trained sort, but of the badly-socialised pitbull variety that bites anyone and anything coming across the threshold.

Looking back to the time of the Sarafina II ‘scandal’ – which now appears distinctly quaint – we can see that the progressive media quickly returned to its pre-1994, conflictual approach to government (the era in which, to his credit of course, du Preez cut his teeth). It goes without saying that the conservative media was obviously never going to be positive about a ‘black government’. The consequence has been steadily-increasing, unmitigated hostility. The relationship between media and government post-1994 is deserving of at least one book-length analysis, which to my knowledge does not yet exist, but the only other thing I should mention is the further damage to the relationship done by Thabo Mbeki’s stance on AIDS. (This is an issue that I will revisit in Part 2 in relation to the judiciary). The Mail and Guardian, in particular, became incoherently critical under its then-editor Howard Barrell, who appeared to seek out anyone criticising Mbeki on any dimension while refusing to publish even letters in his support.

To add to that there was of course the unfortunate case of the South African Human Rights Commission’s investigation into racism in theSouth African media. But of course everyone has forgotten about that now. How the media played the man and not the ball, or, in this case, the woman: Claudia Braude, researcher at the Media Monitoring Project, who was subject to so much vitriol I believe she left the country for a period of time. It is also interesting, given the presumptuousness I draw attention to in my previous post, to look at Zapiro’s reaction. Braude made some mistakes to be sure, but vilification was not the right reaction and was, in any case, completely hysterical. Reading the final report - see for instance pages 11 to 18 - gives one a fairly clear picture of what took place. In fact, it is just an incredibly valuable document, regardless of whether you agree with all its content. In the end, the Commission concluded that "South African media can be characterised as racist institutions", although this is a more subtle statement than it might appear. Needless to say, this conclusion and most (perhaps all) of the recommendations accompanying it were rejected outright by virtually all private media bodies. Many of those who rejected the findings have, nevertheless, had no qualms about subsequently questioning the integrity of anyone who rejects the SAHRC’s findings on other matters with which our self-anointed protectors concur.

So not only has the private media been unbalanced in its approach to government and the ruling party, it has also been singularly uninterested in reflecting on its own weaknesses or accepting the validity of any criticism.    
By focusing the media, both in the nature of its coverage, its investigative reporting and the tone of editorials and opinion pieces, on individual government failures, an impression has been created within government and the ruling party of unfair treatment. This is an impression not only limited to those targeted, but many rank-and-file supporters of the ANC. It should be no surprise that within that organisation there has been such widespread support for the Media Tribunal and all manner of restrictions and limitations on reporters. There is a sense that journalists and editors have overhyped stories too many times. So we have found ourselves in a perverse situation where genuinely corrupt individuals have been able to win favour through critical media coverage, and the best politicians and civil servants have a media presence inversely proportional to their good deeds.

Contrast this state of affairs, and Max du Preez’s attitude with, for instance, the approach of the New York Times and Washington Post to American administrations. Each effectively takes turns being ‘embedded’ with administrations; the Post with Republican governments and the Times with Democrat ones. Now, I happen to be of the view that this has had a fairly devastating effect on democratic accountability in the US, but the main point is that no major American publication comes close to even publishing the brutally critical views regularly carried in the South African media. In addition, they regularly provide coverage of supposedly positive achievements of government. One feels that in the unlikely event a cartoonist like Zapiro existed in the US, he would not need to be sued by a standing president (as is happening now): he would simply be dismissed. Is it a coincidence that the two highly-regarded publications mentioned above have no serious political cartoonists? The same could be said for many other countries.

(Relatedly, it bears mentioning that South Africa’s new ‘Secrecy Bill’, which has rightly generated substantial controversy, does not appear more fearsome than the ‘Patriot Act’ -  passed under George W. Bush but, significantly, not repealed by Barack Obama.)

All of this serves to rubbish the suggestion that the South African government is much less tolerant of media criticism than many governments in ‘mature democracies’. Most of those governments have succeeded – some time ago - in co-opting the media in one way or another, but for various reasons the ANC is not in a position to do this at present. Instead it is forced to use more blunt instruments: exerting political control over the public broadcaster, creating a crony-supported private newspaper and pushing through the Secrecy Bill. There is no reason to measure ourselves by the low standards of the mature democracies of course, but it is important to have a level-headed view of what kinds of relationships between media organisations and governments have been sustainable elsewhere. Du Preez-style bludgeoning does not appear to have existed for any significant period elsewhere. Somehow a healthier balance needs to be struck than a politically corrupted public broadcaster and a set of regularly rabid private organisations.


The interim SAHRC report on racism in the South African media:

The final SAHRC report:
There’s a fairly good piece on the SAHRC saga from a fairly objective viewpoint here:

Sunday, 26 June 2011

On Art, Race and Being Presumptuous

When I decided to start this blog, I had a long list of topics I wanted to get through. It's still pretty long. And the issue of art (in the broad sense) and identity was not on it. But three recent, ostensibly unrelated, exchanges in the Mail and Guardian have made me think that this is an interesting one to tackle. [Links to articles are at the end of this piece]. As with some of the other issues, I don't claim any special expertise, only a particular (and I think largely unrepresented) perspective.


The first exchange that caught my eye was a pair of reviews of journalism professor Anton Harber's book, Diepsloot, one of which was by Andile Mngxitama. Although with different emphasis, style and tone, both reviews came to the conclusion that the story Harber had written would be best told by an(/the) inhabitant(s) of Diepsloot. It is relevant to mention that both reviews were by black males and that Harber is a white male. Harber responds to this sort of criticism indirectly in a separate interview, where he says that "I would ask you to read the book and judge it by its content...I offer just one perspective, and I hope it is a sympathetic and insightful one".

The second exchange was about a set of works by the artist Brett Murray (white male), going under the exhibition title Hail to the Thief. The majority of those works are anti-apartheid posters that Murray has altered to, in his words, "expose the new pigs at the trough". The main article is by one of the makers of those posters, Judy Seidman (white female). She argues that Murray's posters constitute 'bad art' for all sorts of reasons, but particularly because he sullies the content of the originals (including actual individual anti-apartheid activists) and only addresses the issue of corruption of the struggle's principles in a crude and superficial way. Murray's response is to gesture at his own role in making anti-apartheid posters - though not any of those represented - and to argue that he is in fact trying to show-up the inheritors of the struggle mantle as "effectively pissing on the graves of the struggle heroes".

The final exchange involved a critical comment on Zapiro's use of the rape metaphor in his cartoons, which claims that Zapiro "dehumanises...the pain of rape survivors" and that his (excessive) use of the metaphor is an affront to the author as a rape survivor. In addition, some have suggested that Zapiro's rape cartoons are racist in as much as he is portraying only black men in this fashion. [Here is a slideshow of relevant images put together by Zapiro:]

 To save you the suspense, let me state the conclusion of my argument here. I think all the writers have some valid points. However, to the extent that I come down on any particular side it is on those of Seidman (the critic of Murray), Harber and Solomon (Zapiro's critic), but not primarily for the reasons they explicitly provide. I think this is an interesting combination, since the more common opinions will be either for Seidman, Mngxitama and Solomon, or for Murray, Zapiro and Harber. I hope that my argument will also shed some light implicitly on why that is the case. 

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

We need to fix the state

I seem to be writing more op eds than blog posts at the moment, but since the former are not being published I will post them here. Below is an article I wrote for Business Day relating to the civil service. It was in part response to these two pieces, but also building on my previous posts re the civil service question:

Gavin Keeton (an Anglo American manager-turned-academic economist at Rhodes who has a regular Business Day column):

An editor's note by Peter Bruce arguing that running the SA economy should be common sense (which I largely agree with) and that therefore it should be left to market forces (which I don't):

We need to fix the state

There are not many issues in South Africa on which one can say that there is a widespread consensus, but the suggestion that the state is failing to adequately deliver on its socio-economic mandate elicits support from across the social and political spectrum. Unfortunately, this consensus tends to quickly polarise into two camps: those who suggest that the state is failing because it has inadequate power and resources, and those – like Gavin Keeton (“Getting state to do more may worsen delivery”, Business Day, 9th May 2011) - who argue that because the state is failing its size should be minimised. Both views are dangerously simplistic. Giving additional power and resources to a largely inefficient and incompetent entity is clearly foolish unless the entity is overhauled. Arguing that an entity should be bypassed simply because it is currently dysfunctional is equally foolish.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Case of UCT's Centre for African Studies

In my last two posts on the African academy, I have alluded to a controversy relating to UCT's Centre for African Studies (CAS). For those who don't know, the controversy relates to a proposal which will see CAS being merged with some other departments - anthropology, linguistics and the African Gender Institute - and subsumed within a `new school for critical inquiry in Africa'. The UCT administration argues that such a move will enhance Africa-focused research and teaching, while resolving administrative/institutional problems that arise from small academic departments. Opponents argue that the result will be the watering-down of CAS's emphasis on African studies and perhaps the medium-term phasing-out of that kind of work altogether. The links at the end of this piece provide some further detail.

There are really two aspects to the issue. First, a somewhat normative one: is this the right approach to African studies as a subject, and to what extent does it reflect an ideological bias? Second, even if it does make sense to create a larger, cross-disciplinary entity, is this the best/most sensible way to go about it? In the same way as I avoided talking too much about the details of designing civil service recruitment programmes (in The Civil Service Question I and II), I am also going to avoid getting bogged-down in details of internal institutional design. Suffice to say that combining an anthropology department, which may well be interested in anthropological issues not confined to Africa, with linguistics (ditto), a `gender institute' focused on Africa, and a dedicated African studies department seems like a rather hodge-podge combination.

An important piece of background that keeps coming-up is what is referred to as `the Mamdani affair'.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Challenges for the (South) African Academy II: 'Corporatisation', Accountability and Purpose

In recent years, and across a range of countries, there has been a great deal of angst regarding the 'corporatisation' of universities. By 'corporatisation', critics usually mean the running and managing of universities along similar lines to businesses. Key aspects of concern include: The running of universities by individuals who are more managers than academics; an attempt to reduce the aims of academia to measurable performance indicators; and, an inordinate focus on maximising revenue for the university, possibly to the extent of sacrificing deeper academic/educational priorities. I don't know enough about the history of change in the tertiary sector to go into great detail, but my impression is that the trend towards a more corporate form of the university is partly a reflection of the perceived success of some American institutions that have adopted this kind of approach. It is also, of course, the reflection of a much broader societal trend that can be seen in an increasing number of non-private sector entities like NGOs and government departments.

An additional concern to those above is that in many countries - such as South Africa and the UK - governments are playing a strong role in foisting corporate models on universities. This exacerbates the concern with non-academic leadership, since the fear (quite understandably) is that management specialists are more likely to sacrifice academic freedom, on a variety of fronts, in the face of government pressure. In some sense this is ironic, because if universities were to succeed in attracting or generating significant independent revenue, they would gain greater independence from governments. That sort of situation is, however, relatively unlikely for large institutions in low- or middle income countries, from a purely economic perspective. Furthermore, in countries like the UK (and obviously South Africa), as opposed to the US,  there is much less agreement that effectively privatised universities would be a good thing.

In the absence of universities that are financially independent of tax revenues, is there any merit to the 'corporate' approach, or do the costs and dangers outweigh any benefits? What I am going to suggest is that while corporatisation in the above respects is a bad thing, we should not - in rejecting such models - allow academic institutions to gloss over the fact that academic freedom should not imply a free-for-all.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Challenges for the African Academy I: Quality African scholarship

One of the most rhetorically important notions in South African academia is that of `African scholarship’. The University of Cape Town (UCT) has as its explicit objective to `be a world class African university’ and, more recently, to be an `Afropolitan’ university. It is not immediately clear what any of this means. For myself, I have always taken it as obvious that intellectual work in African universities, by African scholars, should be grounded in the history, social context and trajectories of our respective countries and, to an extent, the continent as a whole. Not all work need reflect this grounding, but if only a small proportion does then something is seriously amiss.

Arguments of this sort have, in the last decade, been dramatically extended to suggest that modern `knowledge production’ in our universities should be based on `traditional African’ approaches. One well-known example is in traditional herbal medicine, but the assertion has been extended in a very vague way to the social sciences and even areas like mathematics.

I realised the danger, and absurdity, of some of this rhetoric when attending an Africa-themed research conference a few years ago. More than one speaker, including a senior member of the quasi-governmental Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), simply dismissed intellectual contributions as irrelevant because they were not by Africans. From articles by Xolela Mangcu in Business Day, to the inaugural Thabo Mbeki Leadership conference last year, there has been a recurring desire for a revisionist account of intellectual history; where Plato was schooled by African philosophers, and where there is a distinct African approach to subjects like mathematics. The achievements of various African civilisations have been ignored or dismissed in past historical accounts, and we should of course rectify this. That does not, however, justify excessive romanticisation of the past, or the creation of discernibly false accounts of history. Nor does it justify a parochial account that deprives us of claiming all knowledge as our own – the product of fellow human beings.

A well-known example of romanticisation is the rhetoric around the notion of `ubuntu’ and the claim that prior to colonialists arriving in Africa, African societies were early democracies, where decision-making was egalitarian, wealth was equally distributed and people were at peace with each other and nature. Advocates of this sort of account would do well to read the book by the accomplished, radical Pan Africanist scholar Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, where he states, matter-of-factly, that many African societies were essentially semi-feudalist when the Europeans arrived. (Recall that an aristocratic, feudal society is what was overthrown by the Russian Revolution). This is not to underestimate the damage done by colonialism or the slave trade, but rather, again, to argue against misleading statements about history. There is not much evidence that societies in Africa were on a faster or more pure track to egalitarianism, wealth and further advancement of civilization than other parts of the world.       

A number of very tangible problems arise from the sort of rhetoric described. First, it is very easily used to dismiss inconvenient ideas or colleagues by suggesting that a piece of work is `unAfrican’ or `Western’, and equivalently that the researcher has a `European mindset’. Even if there is some sort of substance behind such statements, they are intellectually sloppy and appear parochial. A second problem is that mediocre academics hide behind the shield of African scholarship. A particular paper is rejected from journals not because it is academically weak but supposedly because ‘African’ ideas are shunned. If the author is criticised by local colleagues these individuals may be labeled ‘un-African’. Again, there are times when ideas are genuinely rejected because they are grounded in an African context unfamiliar, or unwelcome, to foreign journal editors and referees. Too often, however, this is also used to cloak incompetence (and thereby undermine genuine claims of such bias). This in turn can be used to discredit well-founded demands for more substantively African curricula. The notion of substantively African study is arguably what is at stake in the small whirlpool of a debate concerning the Centre for African Studies at UCT; a subject I may discuss at a later stage.  

Advancing quality scholarship

A second problem, directly related to the above, is how to ensure the quality of output by South African researchers. One obvious way is to assess output by the standards of leading international institutions. Another, complementary, approach is to rely on forms of peer review. To put the problem plainly: how would one go about developing an African academy from scratch? Who trains the future academics? By what standards do we judge them to be good at what they do? To make the issues more tangible I will refer to a specific discipline – economics - although it is important to emphasise that there is significant variation across disciplines when it comes to forms of output and peer review.

Internationally, in economics, journal articles are considered of paramount importance as a measure of an individual researcher’s quality. Furthermore, a relatively large weight is placed on journal rankings such as those provided by the ISI. There is an unwritten rule that to get tenure at a top American economics department one must have at least five articles in top-20 journals. To some extent this depends on a researcher’s area of specialization, but it is a useful indicator of the nature of the discipline. By this standard, very few South African economists are of top quality. As Luiz (2010) noted in a survey of the discipline in the South African Journal of Economics, only one South African economist in the preceding five years had published in what are known as the ‘blue ribbon’ journals; distinguished journals, some of which are over a century old, that even now remain in the top 10 or top 15.       

One problem with this approach – leaving aside the extremely contentious issue of journal ranking and its merits - is that it assumes-away the question of what basis we should use to assess researchers’ output. Perhaps in the United States it makes sense to emphasise abstract, theoretical research, while in South Africa we may be more concerned with policy-related work which may be significantly less publishable. Many academics bridle at the idea of attempting to make any comparisons of the usefulness, relevance or importance of different kinds of academic work. There is good reason to be suspicious of such efforts, since academia rarely lends itself to this sort of measurement. However, when one finds academic departments staffed primarily by foreign migrants who are doing identical research to what they would be conducting overseas, and receiving generous subsidies from government for every paper published, the issues cannot be avoided. I am not suggesting such examples are widespread in South Africa, but they do exist and are a direct function of the existing higher education ranking and funding systems. What social benefit is accruing from such a state of affairs?

The challenge of addressing these two sets of issues – encouraging substantively African scholarship that is socially justifiable, while also setting clear quality standards - is one that is not unique to economics, it applies to all academic disciplines in South Africa. In mathematics we may wonder about the appropriate weighting of theoretical versus applied research, while in anthropology it may seem appropriate to place additional weight on research that focuses on important South African issues rather than ones in other societies. In doing this, however, we run into the problem raised previously; mediocre scholars may shelter behind country-specific, or policy-specific, research. In this way, we find ourselves in a bind.

The present state of affairs

What is the current solution to this problem? At the moment it varies significantly across South African universities. Some have professors who have not published in any journals in the top 100 of the economics rankings. Others have people at senior lecturer position who have. In many ways, however, it is the Department of Higher Education and the National Research Foundation (NRF) that direct faculties’ priorities through the way that they allocate funds and thereby indirectly influence promotion criteria. The DHE gives money to departments based on publications in certain ranked journals (including all ISI-ranked journals). The amount given does not, however, vary by the rank of the journal. In other words, you get as much money for publishing in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (often ranked #1) as the South African Journal of Economic and Management Sciences (ranked #202 in 2008). Within some of the top universities, a similar incentive system plays out: promotion and research funding is based primarily on the number of publications rather than the quality of the journals they are in. At other universities publication capacity is so low that even a quantity focus does not suffice to conveniently circumvent the problem, so publication simply gets neglected. This may not be a bad thing, for some of the reasons already mentioned, but let’s continue for the moment to assume that publishing is the most important thing for academics..

The one thing we can say about the international standard is that it is demanding, and a publication in a top international journal is usually enough to know that an individual has a good grasp of a particular area of the discipline. Nevertheless, returning to the specific example, it is unclear how relevant most modern economic research is to South Africa’s economic problems. Our unemployment rates are simply unparalleled in the developed world. Abstract economic theories have shown little, if any, success in addressing substantive and large-scale problems like economic development, sustained growth and poverty-reduction or massive increases in employment. There is not a single country in the world for which work by an economist has been pivotal in informing policies that create economic growth or employment (except perhaps the United States which may have benefited from encouraging other countries to adopt free market policies). Why, then, should we be channeling large sums of money to academics who engage in this kind of research?

The current approach is damaging in this respect and many others. It allows mediocre researchers to produce (possibly ideological) work that is largely irrelevant to South Africa, publish it in low-ranked (often local) journals and yet advance professionally while being unremarkable teachers and receiving significant public funds. Indeed, such individuals may advance significantly more rapidly than counterparts who invest time and resources in their teaching and seek to publish in top international journals – the latter a process which can take up to five years from submission, as compared to less than a year for weak local journals.

The ideal solution may be to require for promotion that academics show they are capable of engaging at the level of the international standard – through some publications in top journals – but remain attuned to the specific nature of South African, and African, problems. Unfortunately, there is little reward (and some risk) to speaking out against the existing system, and most of those with power currently in the system have no incentive to change it – something economists understand all too well.

[Note: Mahmood Mamdani has recently posted an interesting critique of the current state of affairs in scholarship on the continent:
I will comment on this when I look at the recent controversy around UCT's Centre for African Studies]

Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Civil Service Question (Part 2)

Having given an outline of the civil service question in my previous piece, it's worth going into a few aspects in more detail. I'll deal here with two issues in particular. First, characterising explicitly the absence of a serious public sector recruitment programme. While the (often blatant) trade-off between race and expertise is useful to illustrate how far the civil service is from a meritocracy, it potentially obscures the fact that many talented black South Africans are being excluded as well. Second, to make any genuine headway when it comes to the policies governing the public sector, we need to examine the various groupings who have a direct interest in blocking a system of merit-based recruitment and promotion. (A third issue which also merits attention is what a good recruitment, training and career development programme would look like. While important, this is fairly intuitive and I don't have the space to discuss it in this piece).

Entering the Civil Service

As a young South African interested in a career in government where do you start? Perhaps you might go to the main government webpage and look for information on recruitment and selection processes. But there is nothing there. Only information about applying for advertised, vacant posts. So you try individual department webpage, focusing on core departments: basic education, health, transport... Nothing. Only vacancy adverts. Aha, trade and industry has a 'careers' section. Oh, just a blurb and a fancy vacancies template. Department of public service and administration? The website's down.

As far as I know, only one department has a recruitment programme that comes close to a decent international standard, and that is the usual exception: Treasury. In particular, they have a graduate recruitment programme, which incorporates bursaries and internships. Many departments have internship programmes but these are typically advertised on an ad hoc basis, badly managed, badly run and not connected to any explicit or deliberate recruitment or career development plan. Furthermore, most government departments are nowhere to be seen when it comes to careers fairs at top universities across the country. Contrast that to somewhere like the UK, where students from top universities (e.g Cambridge and Oxford) have special transport provided to get them to civil service careers events in London. Is there such a comparative glut of skills in South Africa that government can afford to be so coy?

By contrast, private sector entities, despite being able to offer higher pay and more appealing work environments, have well-publicised, structured recruitment programmes and recruit aggressively for the best candidates and graduates. Anecdotal evidence from undergraduate and graduate students at top South African universities suggests that, regardless of race, very few are interested in, or have even considered, careers in government. And as we have seen above, for those who might be interested there is little to encourage or assist them. Even if we were to keep the racial composition of the public service exactly as it is now, the quality could be improved dramatically by actually putting structures in place to recruit the most talented black graduates. Instead, most departments recruit candidates of significantly lower quality, but later have to headhunt skilled black professionals from the private or other sectors at a significant premium.

Vested Interests

To many people unfamiliar with these issues, such a situation seems incredible. How on earth was this allowed to happen? And why is it being allowed to continue? The first question is really one for a proper history of the transition from apartheid, and I am not going to even try to answer it here. The second question is a little easier to address. Let's focus on some key groups that are either active in maintaining the status quo, or not speaking out against it.The remarkable thing is how these groups are dispersed across the entire spectrum of political views.

Ruling-party politicians and public sector unions

Let's start with the two most obvious groups that have a great deal of influence over the process: the public sector unions and ruling-party politicians. The former have an obvious stake: many of their members are likely to fall below a decent quality threshold, and a significant proportion of these would probably not succeed in 'retraining' to the required standard. Regardless of political views, one needs to be frank about the fact that for unions as organisations it makes very little difference whether their members are less qualified than they ought to be; union membership is not going to be affected, so the focus is on representing current members' interests at any cost. Having said that, one also suspects that more talented and qualified individuals may be less likely to join some of the existing unions which would provide one part of a direct explanation for the defense of the status quo.

What of the politicians? In the previous post I discussed the high turnover of DGs, and how this was usually more a consequence of squabbles with political heads (i.e. ministers) than to do with competence per se. Similar considerations apply to all ranks of the civil service: competent individuals are a threat because they know more than the minister and their advisors, they are more likely to speak up against policies that might be politically convenient but socially damaging,  and by virtue of competence and qualifications they are in a stronger position since they are not as reliant on civil service employment (they could move into the private sector, for instance).

Competence, therefore, is an annoyance to two kinds of politicians: those who want to make policies, or implement existing policies, to score political points at the cost of undermining the official objectives of the department; and, those who want to engage in corrupt or quasi-corrupt practices. To quickly distinguish between those two concepts: 'corruption' would be taking a bribe in a tender process for an otherwise sensible project, while 'quasi-corruption' would be pursuing a non-optimal project because a relative has a company that would benefit from it. The latter is harder to prove and more difficult to prosecute but - interestingly - can do much more damage. (I will discuss this issue in more detail in a later post). Perhaps the most blatant example of abusing the civil service in order to secure political advantage, was what has been called the 'Oilgate' saga. A parastatal, PetroSA, paid a business - which many have only been chosen for its political connections - for a service that was not delivered, because the money was instead channeled to the ruling-party as election funding.

Business and the official opposition

Those are two obvious groups. There are other groups, however, complicit in what has happened to the SA civil service and they can be found on the left and right of the political spectrum. Let's begin with the right. Whether it is the official opposition (the Democratic Alliance), organised business or the parts of the media and academia associated with these, there is an ideological bias against government involvement in society. This is especially the case when the government in question shows any signs of a 'leftist' agenda. These notions of left and right are of course crude, but they are a useful shorthand. Similarly, we can summarise the (explicit or implicit) opposition of these groups to a strong government by the notion of laissez faire or 'small government' philosophy.

Big business (and more niche entities like consulting firms) finds itself in something of a bind when it comes to this issue. In the short-run, it typically benefits from government incompetence. Government overpays for tenders and outsources excessively, relative to what it would if staffed by competent and well-qualified individuals. Furthermore, it is easier for business to engage in brinkmanship when government knows that it is not as well-informed. We have seen such brinkmanship be very successful in a number of key policy clashes, like reform of the banking sector and medicine pricing (to name just two instances). A more competent civil service would, it is true, have come-up with better policies, but would also have been much more confident in pushing them through against self-serving industry opposition. Naturally, business-oriented publications such Business Day and Financial Mail will bemoan government incompetence, but may prefer it to greater government intervention. Other publications and media rely heavily on what I will politely call 'economic commentators', who typically reflect the ideological positions and vested interests of their employers (financial sector companies, consulting organisations and the like).

This is all in the relative short-term. In the longer term, however, as government becomes increasingly incompetent, it may not even be able to appreciate the brinkmanship tactics mentioned previously. In short, the government becomes so incompetent that it begins to make substantial, but seriously damaging, interventions into various areas of society including the economy. Having reaped the benefits of previous government incompetence, businesses now start to find their profitability and international competitiveness under threat. Furthermore, locally they find it increasingly difficult to compete for government work as they become outmaneuvered by enterprises that are prepared to engage in corrupt or quasi-corrupt practices. In the really long run, the wheels of the society come off completely, the economy collapses and many businesses go under. That might sound melodramatic, but there is ample historical evidence for this sort of process in other countries. What this means is that business vacillates between trying to encourage government capacity in some areas (e.g. infrastructure provision) and discouraging it in others (e.g. regulation and consumer protection).

The official opposition by-and-large represents those South Africans who benefit disproportionately from the private sector and/or hold ideological positions that are antithetical to a strong, interventionist government. That, at least, is my explanation for why civil service quality and recruitment has not been an issue on which the opposition has been especially vocal. To the extent that any right-of-centre grouping has been vocal on the subject, it has been the trade union Solidarity. This is for the fairly obvious reason that it represents primarily white workers and has been involved in challenging certain race-based promotion decisions in the public sector (e.g. in the police force).

Left-wing elements of the ruling alliance

What might seem more surprising, is that very little has been said by those on the left of the ruling alliance about these issues, even leaving aside union alliances that include public sector unions. The attitude toward these issues from the two main entities in this part of the political spectrum - the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) - and indeed other more extreme left-wing groups, can be seen in their derogatory references to 'technocrats'. In this sense, technocrats are seen as individuals with some subject-area expertise who use that as a means to dismiss the need for broader consultation or input into decision-making, thereby acting in an anti-democratic manner. Furthermore, such individuals tend to be more closely aligned to centre- or right-of-centre political views.

This view, and the terminology for expressing it, appears to have arisen primarily from these groups' negative experiences in social and economic policy debates from 1996 onwards. [Recall that 1996 was when the macroeconomically conservative Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy was promulgated, and appeared to displace the more socially-oriented Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). (There remains to this day debate about whether GEAR displaced RDP, who was primarily responsible for that, etc.).] The 'technocrats' were typically economists, some in the National Treasury, with fairly traditional views on economic policy and budget deficits, and these views found favour with Thabo Mbeki.

Ironically, however, the notion of technocracy was first developed explicitly by the critically eccentric, but influential, American economist Thorstein Veblen, who proposed it as a means of countering economists' influence on social decision-making (employing the like of engineers instead). Admittedly, the modern interpretation has become more broad. Nevertheless, the employment of highly skilled civil servants would go some way to addressing the many concerns of the SACP and COSATU as regards issues of service delivery, corruption and the like. So much as business opposes state competence to its long-run detriment, so too do these entities oppose it to the cost of the social groups (constituencies?) they claim they are most concerned about.

Black business

A final grouping that needs to be considered is what is typically called 'black business'. By this is normally meant: businesses distinguished primarily by their black economic empowerment (BEE) credentials; aspirant black business people and groupings representing these - most notably, the Black Management Forum (BMF). This broad group fears competence in government, in as much as that might jeopardise the existing emphasis on empowerment credentials and race in government tender processes, as well as efforts to increase that emphasis/weighting. Relatedly, public sector recruitment that places greater emphasis on skills and talent - whether through more aggressive and structured recruiting of black graduates, or less emphasis on race - would set a precedent which may then be used to roll-back the emphasis on race in tender processes.

An interesting historical note

After using the term, it occurred to me to try and find historical references to the 'civil service question'. In doing so, I came across a 19th century American movement known as the Civil Service Reform League, which focused on the 'efficiency' of the civil service and lobbying for improvements in this regard. In the next decade a key piece of policy (and important extensions thereof) was passed - the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act - which sought to entrench the principle of merit in civil service recruitment. The social context in South Africa is of course importantly different, but we could certainly do with an equivalent of the Civil Service Reform League.