South Africa: From reconciliation, to recrimination, to….. ???

Its your faultSouth Africans no longer bask in the glow of the country’s ‘miracle’ of reconciliation. Great leadership can enable a society to seemingly transcend its deeply-rooted deformations.  But such leadership is rare — and in its absence what comes to the surface are the underlying ways in people in a society interact. Unsurprisingly, given the country’s brutal history, what has resurfaced in South Africa is profoundly discomfiting.

Two sets of inherited deformations  make the depths of the country’s  challenges almost unique among middle-income countries. The first is economic – the country’s stark inequality. In a recent working paper (click here to access)  for the DFID-funded and University of Manchester led Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) research programme, Alan Hirsch, Ingrid Woolard and I contrasted South Africa’s income distribution with that of four other middle income countries (MICs) – Brazil, Mexico, Turkey and Thailand. Compared with the other countries, South Africa has an extraordinarily steep distributional cliff within the top third of the distribution. South Africa’s citizens are either affluent or poor, with little in between. As our ESID paper explores, the steepness of this cliff is the consequence of a combination of continued concentration of wealth and income in the hands of the beneficiaries of apartheid, and a post-apartheid economy that is failing to expand opportunities for its citizenry.

Many countries around the world are grappling with high and rising inequality. Everywhere, finding solutions is daunting, In South Africa, however, inequality also interacts with a second challenge — a psychological one. I am using the term ‘psychological’ in a very specific way here — to point towards inherited patterns of thought, speech and interpersonal interaction. Steve Biko, putting it in the political language of the black consciousness movement, framed South Africa’s inherited legacy in this area as follows:

In time we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face….. As a prelude, whites must be made to realize that they are only human, not superior. The same with blacks. They must also be made to realize that they are also human, not inferior…..”

In the initial glow of democratization, it might have seemed as if Biko’s vision of a ‘more human face’ was being realized. But two decades later, and in the absence of visionary leadership, South Africa’s twin deformations are feeding off one another to produce an extraordinarily sour, conflict-prone public discourse.

In two companion blog posts, I describe in detail how this bile-filled downward spiral of (un)civil discourse plays out around specific arenas of public policy and its implementation. One post focuses on jobs and investment (access the post by clicking on this link); the other (access by clicking on this link) on the provision of public services. But the underlying logic is the same:

  • Prevailing policies reflect (as policies do in many places around the world) messy compromises among competing interests. Narrow, politically-connected interests are given special favor – and the result seems like something of a lowest common denominator. (The latter is especially likely given the current combination of relatively weak political leadership, and the reality that the governing African National Congress is itself an unruly coalition of divergent interests…..)
  • Critics of government lambast the policies and juxtapose them with their preferred alternatives – framing their discourses with claims of certainty as to the rightness of their views, and with a superior-sounding high-mindedness.
  • This framing is especially grating to those who confront the day-to-day necessities of wrestling with imperfect realities, and who know that the likely impact of alternative proposals is much more uncertain than protagonists claim. The criticism is all the more grating is that it comes disproportionately from white South Africans who enjoyed elite status during the apartheid years, and who frame their criticisms using seeming code words like ‘capacity’, ‘competence’ and ‘standards’……
  • Government and ruling party spokespeople respond with defensiveness and anger – with the latter both real (given the country’s history and interpersonal baggage), and also tactically useful as a way of deflecting attention away from some of the shortfalls in policy and implementation.

The result, at least in the short-run, is stalemate.

But with creeping economic decay confronted by rising social dissatisfaction, and fueled by an increasingly confrontational discourse, stalemate is not a sustainable equilibrium. One way or the other, stalemate WILL be broken. How? One possibility is a downward spiral of political disaster. Another is a deus ex machina of visionary new leadership. I prefer to focus on a third alternative, laid out in depth by Nobel-prize winner Elinor Ostrom.

For all of their sharp ideological disagreements, most of the current South African discourse operates out of a shared set of ‘top-down’ assumptions as to how policymaking and implementation works – politicians (taking a lead from voters) set goals; high-level technocrats help turn these general goals into detailed policy; the bureaucracy implements. Ostrom contrasts this hierarchical way of thinking with an effort to achieve results by co-equals working collaboratively – fully cognizant of (and committed to managing constructively) the tensions between their private purposes and collective ends. Building on decades of research, she identifies a set of necessary good practice design principles for collaborative governance to succeed.

Ostrom focuses narrowly on the governance of common pool resources such as fisheries, forests and irrigation systems. However, as I spell out in detail in my book Working with the Grain (published in 2014 by Oxford University Press)  the applicability of her insights is far, far broader. They apply directly both to efforts (to be explored in an upcoming post) to improve public service provision, and efforts (explored in the complementary blog post accessible via this link) to accelerate private (as well as public) investment and job creation.

An Ostrom-style, working-with-the-grain vision points in a very different direction from South Africa’s usual policy discourse. Its point of departure is a recognition that for most developing democracies, the way forward is a messier one. Gains come, not from discovering some ‘magic bullet’ that will magically unlock seemingly intractable challenges, but rather through the accumulation of successes across many ‘islands of effectiveness’. And each island, depends for its success on stakeholders engaging in the hard work needed for collaboration to succeed.

This, in turn, calls for taking seriously Steve Biko’s dictum – that genuine co-operation requires us all to learn how to engage with one another as absolute equals in rights and dignity. Considered alone, each individual success may seem quite modest. But taken together, the cumulative consequences of achieving concrete development ‘wins’ – and achieving them in a way that builds on the founding spirit of South Africa’s democracy — can be far-reaching.


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