The Limits to Policy

By Richard Pithouse · 18 Nov 2008

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Picture: lildude
Picture: lildude

The rebellions in the ANC against Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma have broken the hermetic seal that had been tightly wound around electoral politics by the dominance of the ANC since 1994. It is not yet clear which social forces will be able to manoeuvre most effectively on this new and, for the moment, more open terrain. It is possible that once a deal is brokered between the ambitions and principles of the unruly mix of corrupt crony capitalists, conservative patriarchs, liberals, social democrats and Stalinists contending for influence a new order will sink into place with the same weight as the old. But for the moment there is, despite the ongoing debasement of our political discourse by Zuma and some of his supporters, a new space in which there can be some discussion of alternatives.

Although this space remains constrained by all kinds of shared dogmas it is, clearly, important for previously suppressed voices to seize this moment, to use it as effectively as possible, and to hold it open for as long as is possible.  But it is also necessary to begin with a clear understanding of its constraints. In elite civil society one of the constraints has been the tendency to reduce this opportunity to discussions around questions of policy.

Some have come to debates on policy with considerable optimism arguing that despite the crude machismo that has characterised much of the Zuma campaign the Polokwane resolutions nevertheless lay out a progressive policy agenda. The clear break with market fundamentalism is certainly very welcome, as are commitments to extend the child support grant, to steadily decommodify education and so on. But some of the resolutions, particular those that relate to shack settlements and immigrants, are infused with an ominous language of control that is driven by a security rather than a rights based agenda. If you have fled catastrophes in the Congo or Zimbabwe and arrived here without papers, or if you live in a shack because that is your only viable route to personal autonomy or to be able to access the opportunities of a city, you have good reason to fear the Polokwane resolutions.

But as much as the debates around the content of the Polokwane resolutions are important it is also necessary to examine the broader set of political assumptions in which they are all, progressive and reactionary, embedded. This is dispiriting work. The overall vision of a developmental state under the control of party in which branch members are disciplined and politically educated by the party elite remains as stolid, top down and bureaucratic as ever. There is no hint of the kind of contemporary political innovation associated with grassroots political movements in many parts of the world, as well the governments of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti or Evo Morales in Bolivia, that have opened political society to ordinary people as actors who can innovate rather than cadres that obey or spectators that watch.  

There are other limits to a political discourse that limits the possibilities for progress to prospects for new and better policies. The most commonly made argument in this respect is that the South African state simply lacks the capacity to implement policy and that, therefore, new policies are unlikely to be realised in practice. Certainly in the past many policies have not been implemented. One example is the progressive Breaking New Ground housing policy that moves away from the individual subsidy system and supports collective funding for the in-situ upgrading of shack settlements. It is also true that the state has failed to adhere to many laws. Many municipalities consistently act towards shack dwellers, particularly with regard to evictions, in ways that are in strict legal terms criminal.

There’s no doubt that many government departments are crippled by a lack of capacity. But it is also clear that when the state has the political will to commit itself to effective action it is highly effective. The state is, for instance, extremely effective in collecting taxes, monitoring the growth in shack settlements in the major cities, gathering intelligence on grassroots political movements outside of party control and so on. This indicates that there is a significant extent to which the capacity problem is an expression of the deeper problem of political will.

Two of the more important limits to the political will of the state to implement its policies may be linked directly to the top down structure of the ANC and the general hostility that both the ANC and the state have displayed towards popular innovation, at the level of practical action and ideas, outside of its tightly controlled structures.

The first of these limits is the way in which elite political discourse, often driven by elite interests, regularly trumps formal policy positions. A good example of this is the language of ‘eradicating slums’ which results in violent and often illegal state attacks on poor people and their exclusion from the cities. This is in direct contradiction to more pro-poor national policies but takes its legitimacy from the general anti-poor discourse of political elites. If ward committees and ANC branches did not function as a top down and often highly authoritarian system of political control in shack settlements and instead allowed the expression of ideas upwards there would be some prospects for a challenge to the elite slide into anti-poor discourses. As it is popular challenges to elite discourse from outside the party structures are simply dismissed as criminality or political conspiracy.

A second major limit to the political will of the state to implement its policies is the degree to which the state developmental agenda has been overwhelmingly captured by local party elites and subordinated to their personal interests. Housing is a particularly crude example of this. At every turn the politics of patronage moves state developmental projects against the interests of the poor. 

Given the capture of local developmental projects by local party elites it is not surprising that over the last few years so many of the often misnamed ‘service delivery protests’ have targeted ward councillors and their committees. It is equally unsurprising that many of the independent movements of the poor that have emerged from these protests have refused electoral politics altogether and instead sought to build their own power to the point where they can directly counter that of the party and negotiate with the state without the mediation of local party elites.

The debates on the prospects for new and better policies are to be welcomed and we should take them up with vigour. But we also need to be clear sighted about the limits to a conception of politics that focuses on policy without taking sufficient account of the other factors that shape the reality of how things really go down in practice.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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21 Nov


I think it is also important to note in addition that the actual structure of government actually makes it impossible for them to either (a) deliver or (b) take direction from below.

Even the most well-meaning politician can't really change anything. Even if the entire ANC was well-meaning, it is doubltful that anything substantial would really happen.

It takes a lot more than politicians to change government. People must change government. Bolivia and Haiti are both examples of people holding governments to account. Evo, for instance, is accountable to the people through social movements. He cannot do anything without first consulting with them otherwise the social movements will call him into account.

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