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.

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