Of Bathabile Dlamini, Serge Belamant and our enfeebled state

Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini appears before Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) on March 07, 2017 in Cape Town. Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Lulama Zenzile

So, this time around the country managed to dodge the proverbial bullet. The required 17-million social grants will be paid come April 1, thanks to the Constitutional Court’s eleventh-hour intervention.

And left standing are the two villains of the piece - Bathabile Dlamini, the minister of Social Services, and Serge Belamant, the director and face of Cash Paymaster Services (CPS).

Dlamini, the political head of the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa), was justifiably excoriated for, in the court’s words, her incompetence in ensuring a timeous replacement of CPS as the disburser of social grants – as the court had previously directed her to do.

This sorry episode speaks to her abject failure to discharge “what she is a minister for”, as Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng put it.

Yet it also underscores something much more serious about our country – the inability of the post-1994 state to carry out effectively many of what are its core tasks.

The CPS debacle, where the state was forced, not for the first time, to continue a contract already found to be unlawful, is perhaps the most obvious example.

But look at health are, where those with the financial means (including politicians, public servants and their families) have fled the public system in search of better care in the private sector, leaving the poor majority to its own devices.

The situation in education is no different. Witness the phenomenal growth in the number of private education institutions, and the migration of learners from township government schools to either private or former Model C ones – where learning and teaching are beyond the reach of the union stranglehold. Such migration often happening at risk to life and limb in barely roadworthy vehicles.

When it comes to public safety, it is now deemed normal for citizens who can afford it to make plans for their own protection by hiring private security services, rather than depending on a police service whose performance is at best unpredictable.

No wonder the private security industry has burgeoned in our country, with its personnel now estimated to outnumber police nearly three to one. Nor should it surprise us that those lacking the financial muscle to engage private security, and feel let down by the police, tend to take the law into their own hands. To de-legitimize their action we call it “vigilantism”.

On yet another front, Eskom has proved unable or unwilling to collect millions owed to it for electricity. In a place like Soweto for instance, it is true that, for well-known reasons, many cannot afford to pay. But it would be equally false to say none can.

The ANC likes to talk about theirs as being a developmental state. But is not a prerequisite for that a capacity to effectively implement basic state functions? In the CPS and similar contexts, what is developmental about outsourcing such obligations, with the attendant higher costs to the state and citizens?

Another feature of a developmental state obviously has to be the ability to function in a co-operative and coherent way towards a common goal. Ours has repeatedly proven to be less able to do so.

One example is the immigration dispute between Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom and his Home Affairs counterpart, Malusi Gigaba, over visa regulations. The other relates to the pursuit of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan by the Hawks on what turned out to be baseless charges.

Not to speak of the long-running standoff between Gordhan and his tax commissioner Tom Moyane, which saw the latter requesting presidential intervention.

Such discord affects areas key to delivering services which are essential to the well-being of all citizens, as well as economic performance and job creation.

Of course, the question to be asked is whether the state can be properly capacitated and made effective without recruiting the best South African talent it can get. As per the National Development Plan, the public service must be a place where personnel are “recruited and promoted on the basis of merit and potential, rather than connections and political allegiance”.

ANC draft policy documents for the June conference acknowledge the critical need for professionalism and management stability in the state, where instability at leadership level is now common. Going a step further, they call for a curb on “undue interference in the professional functioning of public servants”. The great imponderable is whether the party will indeed “walk the talk”, as it were, come the policy conference in June.

And now for the much-reviled Belamant. His company was accused of wrongdoing, including exploiting the grant recipients’ database for profit. He was condemned for being “arrogant” in the face of questions about CPS’s business conduct and the impending extension of its initial contract.

The great irony of the whole tale was that, at the end of the day, it was to the self-same man that the developmental state returned cap in hand - asking him to take a second bite at a contract long ago ruled illegal by the by the highest court in the land.

The truth is that there are lots of other Serge Belamants making a tidy sum of money from doing what is by rights the state’s job. And despite our momentary outrage, there will be more – thanks to our enfeebled, often incoherent state.

As the ANC prepares for its policy conference, which is meant to inform government programmes going forward, it would do well to address itself to the capacity of the state to carry out those policies.

For what use are lofty policies if your state cannot perform the basic task of providing potable water, a good education, personal security and health services to all citizens – irrespective of their social or financial standing?

eNCA

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