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Blog | High Time for a Capable State

By Mbongiseni Buthelezi

Nothing demonstrates how much we need a capable state like a crisis. Despite the wealthy and the middle class having checked out of using public services in education, healthcare and security, we all now look to the state to get us through the current crisis without too much devastation. We hope that behind national leadership stands a public service up to the task to respond urgently and proportionally to the threat to life and livelihoods posed by the coronavirus.

Behind every doctor and nurse we need a health department that is able to get protective gear to the frontline staff urgently and efficiently. Containing the pandemic requires a department of water and sanitation capable of procuring and delivering water tanks and tankers to every corner of the country in a matter of days. Effective hunger relief requires efficient and effective local government, focused on the needs of the most vulnerable. We can already see the gaps caused by decades of political interference in the hiring and firing of public servants. In the current crisis, these gaps cannot be glossed over with vague platitudes about ‘a long-term policy to address the issues’. The coronavirus is the wake-up call that action must be taken now.

But there is also good news. In contrast to its normal programme-implementation inertia, where the smallest innovation can take years to materialise, large parts of the state have been galvanised into action. Radical policy decisions – from small business support, to an effective basic income grant, to retail price controls – are all being written and put into operation in a matter of weeks, if not days. Of course there have been missteps, as we should expect. The appalling abuse of people by some police and soldiers in the enforcement of the lockdown is simply unacceptable. But the overwhelming theme is action – getting things done, not endless redrafting of lengthy policy documents.

And there is real innovation: the new SASSA grant for those not covered by existing grants has been designed and application tested in record time. It will use a clever mix of mobile technology and banking to distribute funds to a very large group of people that have never been registered for this purpose before. And all this by an agency that until now has had a reputation of being anything but innovative (or even particularly effective).

The state, business and civil society organisations are collaborating in an unprecedented fashion, defining new working relationships and new means of doing things on the fly. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has made statements that hold some promise about significant economic reforms.

Of course, it reflects the crisis that we are in, but we should by no means think that this response was guaranteed. There are many countries (several would consider themselves ‘developed’) where the state’s response has fallen far short of what has been achieved in South Africa. We now need to seize the momentum and transform it from the exception to the rule.

This is an opportunity to source the best ideas from within the state, academic institutions, the private sector and society at large, to create a social compact worthy of the name. It requires innovation and agility coupled with greater accountability of public servants, not to political parties but to broader society. But accountability requires openness to criticism, and willingness to acknowledge and deal with problems. Over almost two decades, the government was increasingly deaf to society, needing to be forced through litigation to do the right things. To meet the challenges of the emerging new age, it must now innovate and collaborate with society.

It will mean building the capabilities of public administrations from national to local levels. Over the years, it has been civil society organisations that have held politicians and public servants accountable for performing their duties as mandated by the Constitution and other laws. What we have not done well enough as private and corporate citizens and residents in this country is roll up our sleeves and help build the kind of state institutions from which we can then demand accountability. We have gone as far as making inputs into laws and policies. But we have to go further. Business needs to care as much about starving families as it does about opening factories. Civil society organisations need to work for a transformed state as much as they currently work around it to deliver goods and services to neglected communities. There is no reason why professional associations of organisational designers, business process engineers and HR practitioners should not become more activist by demanding and stepping up to help improve government from top to bottom. They will meet ready and willing partners in civil society organisations and civic bodies all across the country. We no longer have the luxury of falling back on that old South African saying – “Oh, they must fix it”. We are them.


Dr Mbongiseni Buthelezi is the Executive Director of the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI).