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Reflections on the Development State for South Africa

15th July 2009

By: Adam Habib


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A wealth of scholarship has been built up over the last decade or two on the development states of East and South East Asia. This literature has different orientations. Some have a policy bent and are mainly descriptive detailing the particular policies that generated the positive socio-economic outcomes in these development states. Others tend to a have a more institutional focus emphasizing the embedded but relatively autonomous character of the state, which speaks to the structural linkages and social interactions between political and economic elites. But a description of policies, institutions and networks cannot explain why elite coalitions adopt national development agendas. Neither can they explain why international political elites would allow these development states to implement a series of policies that discriminate again foreign capital. Yet some of the explanation for this is evident in the development literature itself. Chalmers Johnson for instance, explicitly accounts for the rise of the Japanese economic model by arguing that it was essentially a product of the cold war and the competitive relations between the US and Soviet political elites. Other more recent accounts speak of systemic vulnerability generated by specific political, security, and financial conditions, and yet others highlight the role of social mobilization and extra-institutional popular action in prompting these elite coalitions in the direction of broader developmental outcomes.

What this suggests is that there is a need to investigate the underlying politics of development states. Such a politics involves two components: the structural configurations of power at the systemic level that condition political elites to behave in systemically beneficial ways, and the institutional environment, programs and strategies which enables a human oriented development agenda. The former I have discussed elsewhere. In this paper, I hope to discuss the latter in particular because of the state oriented audience at this workshop.


Three institutional structural constraints are often raised when reflecting on the possibilities of a Development State in South Africa. The first two, the fiscal status of the state and the international environment, were brought to my attention in a study of why the state resorted to a conservative macro-economic agenda in the mid-1990s. The third, state capacity and its skills deficits, has been constantly raised in recent years, no less by the President himself in his annual State of the Nation Addresses. How to overcome these constraints is then the focus of the rest of the paper.

Overcoming Institutional Constraints


As was indicated earlier the first constraint that has always been raised against an expansive human oriented development agenda is the fiscal foundation of the state. In the early years of our transition, it was argued that this fiscal foundation was weak, reflected in the high levels of debt to GDP ratio, and as a result the resources were not available for a significant state led development initiative. Of course, as is well known, many other scholars contested this and argued that a more expansive fiscal regime was indeed possible (Terreblanche, 2002, UNDP, 2003). Who was correct in this debate need not detain us here. What is worthwhile noting that almost all would agree that the debilitating state of the country's finances in the mid-1990s has been overcome and this in part accounts for the governments more expansive development agenda of the last couple of years.
A second systemic constraint on the possibility of a development state is the capacity of the public service. One of the trademarks of the development state is its ability to direct the behaviour of private investment. This implies significant capacity at the upper echelons of the state apparatus. Yet all indications are the South Africa is not up to par in this regard. A recent study of redress undertaken by the HSRC demonstrates that the last ten years has witnessed not only the racial transformation of the state, but also its reconceptualisation. In effect, we have tried to replace the Weberian state with an entrepenural one. New black recruits, mainly black, have been thus confronted with a double challenge. Not only where they meant to take over the responsibilities of the previous public officials, but also significant new responsibilities were added to the job portfolio. This happened simultaneously as there was a contraction in the overall size of the public sector. The result was that the public sector went into a serious performance crisis, especially but not only at the local and provincial level.

How to address this problem? Two immediate reforms are required. First, it may be useful to note that the Development state does not require high level strategic and managerial capacity to be diffused across the state apparatus. Rather it requires a critical mass of skills at the apex of the state. It thus may be useful to retain the entrepeneural model for the apex of the state, while the traditional Weberian model should apply for the bulk of the state's employees. The functions of lower level employees must thus be conceived in more traditional terms. Second, it may be useful to approach the redress initiative in less religious and more pragmatic terms. In particular there should be an attempt to retain the skills of older public servants. It should be noted that there are always two components to the learning process: knowledge development, and experiential learning. While most new recruits may have the first, provided largely by universities and higher education institutions, very few of them are able to develop the second, in part because of the lack of mentors. It is important to retain the skills of older civil servants so the experiential processes of learning can be facilitated in the public service.

Finally, another systemic constraint on the development state that is often identified is the international environment. Globalisation, at least those elements of it that have facilitated technological innovation and capital mobility have had the effect of enhancing the power of multi-national corporation's vis-à-vis national political elites, thereby circumscribing the possibilities for a human oriented development. A strategic foreign policy is therefore instrumental in establishing the political space and enhancing the capacities of national stakeholders, including its political elites, to pursue a developmental state agenda. The literature review undertaken above of the political conditions under which elites become responsive to their citizens clearly indicates that a contested international environment defined by rivalry among global elites and great powers is positive for human-oriented development. Moreover, it suggests that resource endowments, such as mineral wealth, strategic location and even population size, can become a useful leverage for national political elites in their engagements with their foreign and global counterparts. The application of these lessons to the South African case involves two elements. First, it requires South Africa to undertake the role of leadership in the continent, or in the words of some of the international relations literature, to play the role of benevolent hegemon that not only prioritizes stability, democracy and economic development, but also the development of regional and continental common markets. These increases in market size can greatly enhance the leverage of national and continental politicians in their relations with other actors in the global economy, and can be particularly favorable for attracting foreign investment. Second, it would require prioritizing multilateral institutions and endeavors and strategic alliances both among the South and between Northern and Southern countries in order to contain not only the unilateralism of the United States, but also that of big economic powers when they act in concert as often happens in global trade negotiations.
Some of these roles are already being undertaken by South Africa. It has increasingly begun to play the role of regional and continental hegemon, even if this is done unevenly and sometimes reluctantly. South Africa has also played an active role in multilateral institution building both at the continental and international levels. Moreover, it has also begun to prioritize strategic alliances as in the case of the India, Brazil, South Africa partnership and in the Group of 20, both of which were crucial in preventing, particularly in the trade negotiations in Cancun, an unfair trade deal being imposed on the countries of the South.

Yet despite these successes, there are some significant weaknesses in some of South Africa's foreign policy engagements. First, it has to prioritize South-North strategic alliances, in addition to the South-South ones, if power is to be significantly dispersed in the global setting and development opportunities for the South are to be maximized. Second, some of South Africa's politicians have to learn to transcend their market fundamentalism so apparent in some of the documentation of NEPAD, their refusal to regulate South African investment on the continent, and in the almost timid reforms undertaken at the level of the IMF and World Bank. It would be useful to note that the current success story of China is not one of simply its resort to the market, but also its pragmatism in manipulating the latter, through a fixed currency for instance, to suit its own ends. Third, South Africa's foreign policy practitioners and trade negotiators need to become bolder in their engagements. This would involve a greater willingness to involve itself in the politics of brinkmanship, as occurred in Cancun, and in engaging global civil society who could be far better engaged than at present to advance a human-oriented development agenda. Finally, none of this would be possible without more significant capacity being built both at the level of technical skills within state institutions, and the internalization of these strategic perspectives among state personnel far beyond the narrow band that currently occupies the presidential and foreign policy apparatus. Only then are we likely to create an environment that would be facilitative of us pursuing a developmental state agenda in South Africa.



It would be worthwhile to note that the essential thesis of this paper is that not only is human-oriented development a product of a political process, but also that it requires a diffusion of power both in the international and national environment. This diffusion of power enhances the accountability of political elites to their citizens, thereby creating the motivation for their pursuance of a developmental agenda. Moreover, it increases their leverage vis-à-vis other domestic and international actors, thereby creating the capacity and space for them to pursue such human oriented development. This then is one of the principal lessons to be learnt from some of the comparative development experiences across the world. And it is only when we internalize this lesson, that development is a political process, will we succeed in the realising that vision of social citizenship enunciated by T.H. Marshall in his classic text of five decades ago, and which now underlies the political aspirations of the ruling party, progressive leaders, activists, public intellectuals and scholars.




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