File: Former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas is under cross examination at the Zondo Commission.
A book whose author has refused a R600 000 000 bribe is a book that comes highly recommended. But be warned. The book, After Dawn: Hope after State Capture, is devoid of all autobiography, except one page mentioning Mcebisi Jonas’s feeling of loss when being offered that bribe.
The book contains no biographical details. They are, nevertheless, fascinating. For example, he became politically active at the age of 14, and went on to leave South Africa for military training in Angola and Uganda. On his return from exile, his task was to play a crucial role to set up the African National Congress (ANC) and Communist Party structures in the Eastern Cape province.
The book is written to be readable: each chapter starts with a half-page box summary of its main points. After Dawn repeatedly stresses:
None of the ideas put forward in this book are new, in fact they echo our existing policy … what is required is to put these ideas into action (page 202)
“These ideas” turn out to be a passionate advocacy from cover to cover of the almost forgotten National Development Plan. This was a comprehensive policy document drawn up by a special ministerial body first constituted in 2009 by then-President Jacob Zuma. It was, however, never implemented in full.
Jonas has two overarching themes. The first is one of structure. That South Africa’s state-owned enterprises, national, provincial, and municipal bureaucracies must be purged of kleptocrats and incompetents to become meritocratic. The Public Service Commission – which was designed to keep the public service honest – must regain its powers to hire and to fire. Political appointees must be confined to the ministries, not departments.
Jonas’s second theme is agency. The task of these meritocratic bureaucracies should be to enable entrepreneurship, and to become entrepreneurial themselves. State-owned enterprises must once again pay their own way, be partly or wholly sold off, or re-absorbed into the line functions of a department.
All this is no less fascinating in its implications for being familiar, well-trodden ground. John Kane-Berman, veteran policy fellow of the Institute of Race Relations, regularly churns out blogs warning all and sundry that the ANC and its communist National Democratic Revolution is steering South Africa directly to communism.
It is clear that Jonas – an ANC leader so senior as to have formerly been a deputy minister of finance – has a communist party history which has left him on economic policy as post-Marxian as the current Communist Parties of China and Vietnam.
This book is definitely a booster to morale. Jonas reminds South Africans that their country achieved 5.3% economic growth in 2005. And that he believes it can do it again.
Another point worth boasting about is that the annualised returns on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange are, over the long term, the highest in the world. (p.30)
Jonas argues that South Africa does not lack ideas. Where it falls short is implementation.
….unlike Singapore, our focus in South Africa has too often been on the plan, rather than on what needs to be done and how to get it done. We stumble at the point of implementation.
Jonas is clearly sympathetic to the concept of a German or Swedish style class compact to facilitate a return to economic growth.
Jonas holds up Singapore as a model for South Africa to strive to emulate. He concedes that every country has its own idiosyncrasies and that not everything that works in one will work in another. Nevertheless, he expounds the virtues of the island nation’s early obsession with making sure that the majority of the population felt a sense of belonging. And making Singapore relevant to the world. This required absolute clarity of vision about what the country stood for.
Jonas’s favourite economists are Ricardo Haussman, César Hidalgo, and Sebastián Bustos (p.155). He particularly admires the way the three academics have developed the concept of economic complexity. As Jonas explains,
this is a measure of the knowledge in a society (as measured by the notion of ‘person bytes’) as expressed in the products it makes. This, in turn, is closely linked to a country’s level of development and is predictive of its future economic growth
This, they argue, makes it possible to calculate the economic complexity of a country based on the diversity of exports, their ubiquity, or the number of countries able to produce them. He notes that South Africa has failed to undergo complexity-led transformation. In fact, its portfolio of exports has declined since 1994.
Many of Jonas’s recommendations are in the National Development Plan. One central theme is: remove constraints to competitiveness.
South Africa needs a comprehensive push to higher job productivity because it cannot compete against low-wage countries. It needs to incentivise innovation and double its spend on research and development. Human capacity needs to be expanded. And it shouldn’t hesitate to import skilled persons.
The country’s vision must be to accelerate economic inclusion. To this end it needs a corruption-free, high-performance state. This in turn requires the nature of politics to change, including reform of the ANC.
This is a recurring theme for Jonas. He repeatedly emphasises the need for the ANC to reform itself. He believes strongly that this is vital if South Africa is to move onto a faster growth path.
I have some minor quibbles. The parsimonious publisher has not used colour, meaning that all the tables have lines in confusing shades of blurred greys.
As far as the substance is concerned, I disagree with Jonas that digital voting systems can prevent ballot fraud (p.215). A desktop search turns up numerous examples of error or fraud that have occurred in the US and other digital voting countries.
After Dawn deserves the media exposure it is getting. Popularising the ideas and arguments in the book will help them gain traction, and help marginalise the conspiracy theories and smears being pumped out by the kleptocratic fight-back campaign trying to derail efforts to clean up the country’s political and economic systems.
After Dawn, by Mcebisi Jonas. Picador Africa, imprint of Macmillan. Johannesburg. 2019. 277pp. Foreword by Cyril Ramaphosa.