Thursday, October 15, 2009

What does 'meddling' say about South African governance?

Today in the news, it is reported that Joel Netshitenzhe, a senior policy figure in the Presidency, urged the African National Congress (ANC) not to “micro-manage” the state. He said that this would undermine the legitimacy of the state.

This sort of meddling across competencies is a common experience of governance in South Africa. The question is where does it come from and how can it be fixed? For no society can be organised and develop along a steady path without having clear procedures and practices on who and how can meddle in other people's affairs. The flipside of this coin is that without proper channels, people with grievances will have to find other avenues to make themselves heard. If there is no proper channel for the residents of Sakhile Township to air their grievances, how can we expect that they do not use any other means to draw the attention of those in power?

At Wits, students could not use meaningfully the proper channels to have someone pay heed to their grievances. The only way to get things moving, or at least to have the semblance of it, was to protest and seek a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor. The other people in the chain would just ignore the students who were usually considered a nuisance, not individuals who deserve attention and a clear answers to their questions.

To make matters worse, the Council was meddling in the affairs of the University's management. Proper governance sees more of a guidance role for the Council, an advisor but also an authority to correct the path of management if things go wrong. In civil society organsiations and parastals, too many Boards do not exercise proper supervision. Either they are too close to management or they drag their turf and ideological wars into the management of the organisation. The SABC is an example of how the Board failed to steer a struggling organisation onto safer shores. In Business, despte numerous reports and recommendations on good governance, too many dubious practices persist.

So why this? In a nutshell, I can think of two explanations. First, we are still a society in transition. Our institutions and organisations are far from having digested the installation of a new order. We live in the post-colony, with all the problems attached to it. Exclusionary establishments, as in the case of Wits for instance, lack legitimacy. So those in positions feel weak, in that they feel they do not have the support to decide and act, and those with grievances feel they cannot expect to get a fair hearing, and the concomitant action to remedy their situation. At state level, the transition from the Mbeki to the Zuma era highlights a typical problem of a young demoracy, and which many African states have not addressed in a meaningful way: the relationship between the ruling party and the state.

The second explanation deals with trust. The trust levels in our society are very low. While cheating, deception, fraud, and so on, occur in any society, in South Africa they probably thrive at exceptional high levels. Unless we learn to trust and confide with people we deal with on a daily basis, the urge to enforce and control will prevail. However, no working and happy society can be built on such a basis.

The Goldstone Report

The UN Security Council was recently deliberating what to do with the report. Judge Goldstone received much criticism from all sides for it. Judge for yourself. The human toll in this conflict is unbearable, and clearly, there is no military solution unless full-scale ethnic cleansing is considered. I hope that such fact finding missions contribute to a peaceful setttlement.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Executive salaries: when is high too high?

Since Barack Obama became US President amidst a global economic crisis, how private capitalist enterprise relates to public enterprise and the common good, as assumed in a liberal democracy, is again the focus of much debate across the globe. The bankruptcy of General Motors brought the issue of executive remuneration to the fore: how can you justify millions of salary expenses for executives of a firm that is bankrupt and is being bailed out by the taxpayer?

In a global economy, this is a global debate. In Switzerland, the Chief Executive of the UBS AG, one of the largest Swiss banks that was bailed out by the Swiss government with a more than US $ 42 billion injection, said that salary caps are not feasible as one would not know how high would be high enough. When asked if his million dollar bonus was too high, he said that it was maybe too low. This made the news as UBS announced to fire some 8 700 employees to save costs.

The CEO of Nestle, the largest global food processing company, weighed in the debate by declaring that if salary caps were legislated, he would move the company out of Switzerland.

In South Africa, private enterprise is largely save from such debates. After all, here, no big bailouts were necessary. However, the discussion turns around public enterprises or parastatals, and if their executives should receive similar pay and bonus as those in private industry.

Arguably, a developing state that has to be careful with its expenses and make sure that the money goes to those who need most urgently support. Executive salaries seem to be a good place to save. High salaries, however, are justified with the reasoning that in order to attract the best talent for the job, parastals have to compete with private industry.

Both these cases show a clear conflict between economic reasoning in a world with no boundaries and a sense of ethics and responsible thinking that is tied to place and people.

CEOs operate in a sphere of thinking devoid of boundaries and attachment, physical and ethical. All that counts is an economic logic that subjects any other considerations to the maximization of profits. However, democratic governance, based on the sovereignty of the people, tied to a community and the common good, requires ethical behaviour. It is only through ethics that the meaning of a community is maintained.

It speaks perhaps to the failure of the reproduction and education of a globalized, Westernized economic and political elite, that we are faced with this situation. As, some observers pointed out, was the extreme risk taking of the banks based on the institutional loss of memory about the perils of banking, so is the arrogance of those at the top of our economic system endangering the very foundations of our democracies.

Rethinking economic models alone will not do. Leaders of multinatinals need to rediscover their social responsibility, beyond marketing speak, or there will not much to be left to be lead.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Are European politics turning more African?

With the recent European elections, and 60% of voter abstinence, we have one more proof that democracy is in crisis world wide. Not that this is news, we have been reading about this for many years now, but clearly, citizens feel that it matters not much for their daily lives what goes on in the palaces of power. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the leader of the European green party, and the big winner of this election, stated that it was also the irrelevant media coverage, turning politics into a soap opera, that fuelled a diminshed interest in politics.

The Dutch anthropologist, Peter Geschiere, in a little and insightful article 'Le politique "par le bas": les vicissitudes d'une approche' (in Konings, Van Binsbergen, Hesseling, 'Trajectoires de liberation en Afrique contemporaine, Karthala, 2000) suggested that European politics was taking more and more its cue from Africa. It seems now that after the empire had written back, it was now the empire's politics that returned to the metropole.

Under the impact of globalisation, and such far-reaching policies as structural adjustment and the concomitant inequalities, post-colonial states saw a context with few political and policy options to spurn development and few, clearly defined political-ideological choices. Politics did not offer any clear alternatives.

Geschiere argues that it was the restraining influence of a global and transnational constellation on national politics, and the absence of space for alternatives that led to an increasing disentchantment with politics. In Africa, Geschiere writes, this restrained context had created the dominance of personalised politics, and the development of clientelist networks that asphyxiated the body politic.

Is the advent and triumph of Silvio Berlusconi emblematic for this transfiguration of post-colonial realities?