South Africa's Slippery Slope: Beefing Up the Implementation of Bad Policies

By Mohamed Motala · 6 Mar 2009

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Picture: Maureen Sill
Picture: Maureen Sill

Both the President’s State of the Nation address delivered on 8 February 2009 and the Finance Minister's Budget Speech, which followed a few days later have told us that South Africa's 'policies' are in place and that the main problem facing our nation is poor implementation.

The State of the Nation address and the Budget Speech are the two most important policy agenda-setting opportunities that the two most powerful men in the country have at their disposal. They present opportunities for sincere assessment of our public policy. Instead, they were reduced to counting achievements and backslapping. 

In these trying times, the brittle optimism of our leaders rings hollow when the only messages being preached are hope and resilience. This is not good enough. It lacks imagination and hides an unwillingness to tackle, directly, policy failures that constrain South Africa, both socially and economically. 

Given the nature of South African society and the economy on which it is built, good policies should primarily be about making a difference to the lives of the poor who constitute the majority and whose progress is intimately tied up with the growth of the economy. South Africa’s economy will not grow if the poor remain poor. 

Granted, measuring good policies can be perplexing. Are good policies measured by the values they embody? To what extent does the measure of a good policy extend to its application? How far is performance and impact a necessary measure of good policy? All of these questions are posed in measuring whether the South African constitution works.

The constitution is the supreme policy guide, which all who live and work in South Africa abide by and hold in high esteem. Our democracy is built on this.

However, the biggest failure of our policies and our constitution is the inability to link our economy and society towards the fundamental goals of increasing employment, eradicating poverty and lessening inequality. There is no link between social policy development and economic policy development. Our constitution recognises human rights, but falls significantly short when advancing economic justice, yet it is only by linking social and economic justice that true meaning can be given to the realisation of human rights.

If one examines pronouncements on our policies, then it becomes clear that they build on a trajectory that started with President Mandela, through to President Mbeki and now Mothlanthe. Mandela's era was viewed as the policy development era, whilst Mbeki's was seen as the implementation period. Mbeki was seen as "Mr. Delivery", the president who would deliver on the good policies made by his predecessor. Getting down to work and "business unusual" are phrases he himself invoked to drive delivery within the public service and amongst the population in general. 

Mbeki consolidated his grip on policy by measuring its performance rather than formulating it. By overemphasising management and control as the way out of poverty, Mbeki did not allow for any discussion of how bad (or good) South Africa’s policies indeed are. His framework for understanding and formulating a response to poverty lent itself to explaining poverty as a problem of mismanagement -- largely drawing its rationale from the logic that if the economy is properly managed, all sorts of problems will be addressed. 

In this regard, there has been and is no impact assessment of the constitution on the poor. In reality, the bubble has burst for the majority of South Africans who, daily, live the reality of poor policy choices. 

For the poor, our democracy is very sick. 

Responding to the Human Rights Commission's call for submissions to assess whether South Africa is on track to meet Millennium Development targets, The Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE), a research agency working in the area of social and economic development since 1984, examines whether the lot of the poor has improved. CASE argues that while progress can be measured in alleviating poverty, the overall impact doesn't go anywhere near eradicating poverty and reducing inequality, which are fundamental within the rights based approach enshrined in the South African constitution.

CASE's research shows that the proportion of people living in poverty during democracy has increased.

That South Africa will fail to meet the Millennium Development Goals should not be attributed to poor implementation, but rather be ascribed to the lack of a coherent, all encompassing strategy that places the reduction of inequality at the centre of our policies.

During the period that the Human Rights Commission puts under the microscope - 2004 to 2008 - CASE has investigated household income, expenditure and access to services by surveying a total of 25,000 respondents, holding over 200 in-depth interviews and hosting over 100 focus group discussions with the South African public and government officials. The results of these surveys are contained in approximately 35 reports commissioned by government itself. 

The overwhelming conclusion is that government could have done much more to eradicate poverty and reduce unemployment through better service delivery.

Even in the richest province of Gauteng, there still are households that live in informal settlements without basic sanitation. In some wards of Gauteng, 10% of household have no form of sanitation at all, a further 6% use basic pit latrines, similarly 6% of dwellings do not have electricity, while 17% of households have no refuse removal. Only half the adults in the economic powerhouse of the country have some secondary education. Close to 50% are unemployed and actively seeking work and 81% have been unemployed for more than two years. 

Often the assertion is made that our democracy is healthy. The measure of this is cited as political participation and smooth transitions between elites. The latest evidence being put forward is that we had a bloodless coup with the changing of the last president and that our democracy is deepening because the opposition will be strengthened with the addition of COPE.

It is difficult to accept that this is as good as it gets. 

If one accepts that the highest level of evaluation is impact assessments, then growing inequality, persistent poverty, underdevelopment and unemployment on the one hand combined with a greater concentration of wealth on the other, and a small, but growing number of richer individuals, must be seen as a failure of our policies.

The token emergence of black diamonds and dollar millionaires is not being assessed in the context of growing poverty. This is incorrect. It makes the measurement of inequality vitally important and if rights are to be enshrined, then addressing economic inequality is vitally important.  

The focus on the 'now' and 'short term' often hides the more severe and endemic problems that are longer term and like a cancer, kills quietly in the early stages, but erupts towards the end. 

Sadly, South Africa's development policy is stuck in a paradigm of modernity based on solutions that only look at better management. This coupled with economic policy that is orthodox will not solve our problems.

Our policies lack imagination.

The time has come to wake up and realise that what we call a great democracy, is actually a 'pretty picture' for the rich only.

It is time for our leaders to be bold and pronounce that perhaps our policies are not that great after all and that they require some review, even at the level of the constitution.

Motala is executive director of CASE, the Community Agency for Social Enquiry.

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Rory Short
7 Mar

Erroneous Pre-occupation

Mohamed you say
Sadly, South Africa's development policy is stuck in a paradigm of modernity based on solutions that only look at better management.
Our development policies are not only stuck in the above paradigm but they are also still stuck in the irrelevant racial paradigm. Such policies have kept the country on the racial detour that has been sidelining its development for centuries. That our centuries old racial detour has meant that our people are disadvantaged in various ways is an undeniable fact. Nevertheless present policies

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