DEVELOPMENT: The Democratic Developmental State in South Africa

The Democratic Developmental State in South Africa post-2014: the path ahead: Part 1/3



The African National Congress (ANC) continues to receive – as demonstrated by the outcome of the recent national elections in the May 2014 – an overwhelming political mandate to govern the country and implement its election Manifesto. It is therefore timeous and apt that we ask: will South Africa continue to move closer to becoming a developmental state? And if so, what will be its purpose, character and impact?

In this series of three articles, we will explore these questions as well as take a closer look at the background and genealogy of this idea; some misconceptions about it; look at some comparative examples; assess how far we have come on this journey in South Africa particularly through the building of a capable State and an effective, efficient and ethical Public Administration; and finally we will attempt to look ahead.

The electoral mandate received by the ANC is democratic and political. Consequently in discussing issues of development, the economy and the state, we must also focus on the relationship between the people, the political and the economic – or the political-economy – and the domestic, regional and international contexts. In interaction these components can be observed, conceptualized and described as a complex and dynamical – therefore heterarchical – system in which the notion of the Developmental State must be centrally located. Our democratic Constitution, conceived upon a similar notion – three interacting, equal spheres – functions from such a philosophical perspective as well, hence there is not only a suitable conceptual and practical fit, but we also avoid thinking along narrow economistic and reductionist lines.

It is also necessary to mention this at the start in order to clearly differentiate this discussion about the South African developmental state from previous historical debates and examples of hierarchical, static, state-directed, centrally planned and often socialist, alternatives. This should not necessarily be interpreted as taking an ideological position about economic values – much is wrong with capitalism – but rather as an attempt to reflect on how to make optimal use of political power in the current conjuncture and context. Or in other words, how to best give expression to the idea that “the people shall govern” by effectively and efficiently implementing the political mandate that the voters of South Africa has just given the ANC through the free expression of their will in Constitutionally proscribed democratic elections. Our developmental state, given this reality, must therefore of necessity, also be a democratic one; we cannot simplistically try to imitate or transplant authoritarian versions from other contexts.

Moreover, in as far as development is concerned, there is a Constitutional imperative that is not often mentioned or discussed. The Constitution (Chapter 10) requires the State to be developmental in its orientation, and that the country must pursue substantive equality. This was eloquently analyzed by Chief Justice Pius LANGA in his 2006 Public Lecture (Stellenbosch) on the radical or transformative nature of our democratic Constitution.

The concept of and the rationale for the democratic developmental state in South Africa is therefore not in dispute: fast, sustained and inclusive growth; moving the most populous part of our dual economy – Black and poor – out of underdevelopment caused by colonial and apartheid dispossession; historical catch-up with developed economies by our national economy as a whole; and building competitiveness into the future. With the polity in South Africa having been fully democratized, key sectors of the economy however still largely function on the basis of cheap African and migrant labour from rural areas – precisely how the colonial and apartheid economies were built – and so the structure of the South African political-economy will have to be fundamentally changed, reformed and retooled.

A democratic developmental State will allow us to do so in an orderly and planned fashion, as we – through targeted State intervention – build a new majority-Black industrial class whilst at the same time expanding, diversifying and growing our industrial base. The twin pressures of a democratized polity and global competition in open markets, create two iron cages from which no Government or political party can insulate itself when it considers its economic policy or political performance.

In this respect I will argue in this Series that the democratic developmental State is a national priority ideally suited as the framework around which an inclusive National Compact can be successfully and productively negotiated and constructed. By combining this with a strategy of industrialization through regional integration – the latter already the consensus position in the African Union – the ANC Government will smartly leverage the investments it has made in Continental renewal over the last 20 years, and which are now beating fruit.

Background and Context

Some initial remarks about the context, both historical and contemporary, are important. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War and at the height of neo-liberal triumphalism, it was impossible to raise any critique of free-market capitalism. As Wendy BROWN perceptively argued in her 2003 Essay entitled “Neo-liberalism and the end of liberal democracy”, the logic of the market had not only penetrated spheres where it did not belong – for example the public sphere that pursues the common (not private) good and which must protect or empower the weak against the strong – but also imposed a new form of rationality. Neo-liberalism is generally understood to be the repudiation and replacement of Keynesian welfare state economics with the deregulated, free-market or private sector capitalism associated with Hayek and the Chicago School of political economy. It is also closely associated with the phenomenon that came to be called “globalization”.

As BROWN pointed out: “The neo in neo-liberalism, however, establishes these principles (pre-Keynesian assumptions about the generation of wealth and its distribution) on a significantly different analytic basis as set forth by Adam Smith…Moreover, neo-liberalism is not simply a set of economic policies; it is not only about facilitating free trade, maximizing corporate profits, and changing welfarism. Rather neo-liberalism carries a social analysis, that, when deployed as a form of governmentality, reaches from the soul of the citizen-subject to education policy to practices of empire. Neo-liberal rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarily focused on the economy; it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutional and social action, even as the market itself remains a distinctive player”. Wendy Brown: Edgework; pp. 39-40)

Earlier in 1989 in an essay published in The National Interest under the title “The End of History?” Francis FUKUYAMA asked whether we had arrived in a post-ideological world and the triumph of liberal democracy. The ensuing debate gave politics, political agency and the State a bad name and for a while it seemed as though the world was doomed to live the nightmare of market fundamentalism, conservative realism, financialization, militarism and rapidly escalating inequality. For Africa, this situation would have meant remaining locked in the colonial and post-colonial state of poverty, inequality and underdevelopment; a situation that under conditions of democracy, would automatically and rapidly lead to any Government presiding over such a situation, being unceremoniously voted out. The intricate and tenuous relationship between the people, politics in the form of democracy, economics in the form of free-market capitalism and the context quickly became apparent.

In that post Cold War period of conservative liberal – if not belligerent American – hegemony, South Africa and Africa had to steer a very careful course, given the then balance-of-forces internationally and in the case of South Africa, domestically. It was a most dangerous period fraught with enormous risks. The ANC Government realized early on that both the NDR and the project of a developmental state were political, strategic, context-sensitive and would have to be constructed through patience and human agency, effort and ingenuity.

American unipolarity and triumphalist belligerence, gave rise to a conservative liberal orthodoxy which came to be known as the Washington Consensus. It is important to note that the origin and history of the key body of policy measures that came to be known as the Washington Consensus, remains contested. Whilst the British economist John WILLIAMSON claimed that “the story started in the Spring of 1989 when I was testifying before a Congressional committee in favor of the Brady Plan. I argued that it would be good policy to help the debtor countries overcome their debt burden now that they were making profound changes in economic policy, along the lines advocated by Balassa, Bueno, Kuczynski, and Simonsen (1986)”; none other than Joseph STIGLITZ highlighted the fact that the key policy measures contained in the Washington Consensus, actually originated in the rational response of some South American countries to the objective political-economic and social conditions they faced at the time. Regardless of its origins, one of the enduring legacies of the Washington Consensus and how it was politically wielded on the international stage by the USA and other developed countries, was that the State was discredited and fingered as a key problem; particularly when it came to economic and developmental issues. Through viciously policed Structural Adjustment Programs, developed countries coerced developing countries into pursuing the withdrawal and weakening of its States; the deregulation and opening of its markets,; the privatization of its public assets; the reduction of its public debt and the “toeing of the line” internationally.

When the African National Congress became the first democratically elected, and therefore legitimate, Government in the history of South Africa in 1994, it inherited not only a country steeped in racism, division, fragmentation, violent strife, inequality and poverty but also one with an empty fiscus, a large public debt, a dual economy with one part developed and living off an underdeveloped part.

As far back as in its 1997 Discussion Paper entitled “Developing Strategic Perspective on South African Foreign Policy”, the ANC conceptually linked the people, democracy, development and the context; both domestic and international. In what was to become known as the “African Renaissance”, the Discussion Document presciently sets out the following strategic agenda:

1. The recovery of the African continent as a whole
2. The establishment of political democracy on the continent
3. The need to break neo-colonial relations between Africa and the world’s economic powers
4. The mobilization of the people of Africa to take their destiny into their hands thus preventing the continent being seen as a place for the attainment of the geo-political and strategic interests of the world’s most powerful countries; and
5. The need for fast development of people-driven and people-centered economic growth and development aimed at meeting the basic needs of the people.

From an ideological perspective, the implicit anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal stance, emerging from the liberation struggles of the African continent against foreign domination and underdevelopment, in these positions are self-evident and need no further emphasis at this stage. We will however return to these at a later stage as they are central to contentious contemporary debates about the South African economy, growth, industrialization and development.

The ANC and the Developmental State

By 2007 the ANC had articulated its understanding of the Developmental State with specific South African characteristics, and defined its key features:

• The first attribute of a developmental state in our conditions should be its strategic orientation: an approach premised on people-centered and people-driven change, and sustained development based on high growth rates, restructuring of the economy and socio- economic inclusion.

• The second attribute of a developmental state should be its capacity to lead in the definition of a common national agenda and in mobilizing all of society to take part in its implementation. Therefore, such a state should have effective systems of interaction with all social partners, and exercise leadership informed by its popular mandate.

• The third attribute should be the state’s organizational capacity: ensuring that its structures and systems facilitate realization of a set agenda. Thus, issues of macro-organization of the state will continue to receive attention. These include permutations among policy and implementation organs within each sphere, allocation of responsibilities across the spheres, effective inter-governmental relations and stability of the management system.

• The fourth attribute should be its technical capacity: the ability to translate broad objectives into programs and projects and to ensure their implementation. This depends among others on the proper training, orientation and leadership of the public service, and on acquiring and retaining skilled personnel.”

Importantly it also went on to emphasize three additional tasks:

1. Developing the capability to intervene in the economy in the interest of higher rates of growth and development
2. Effecting interventions that address the challenges of unemployment, poverty and underdevelopment
3. Mobilizing the people as a whole, especially the poor, to act as their own liberators through participatory and representative democracy

Following vigorous internal debates and linking the developmental state to the National Democratic a Revolution (NDR), a senior ANC leader at the time – Alec ERWIN – observed:

“A key point will be that neither the NDR nor a developmental state can be taken for granted. It is absolutely essential to understand the complexity of these phenomena. Neither of them can be treated as technical matters that can be brought into existence by political decisions and institutional changes alone, although both of these are important. An NDR is a historically defined possibility requiring a particular conjuncture of class forces. A developmental state is not some stage of development in state formation or a blueprint of governance. A developmental state comes into being when a political movement can translate its political power into a set of institutions that support developmental processes which can be sustained over decades.”
Alec ERWIN: The Developmental a state and the National Democratic Revolution in Ben TUROK (Ed): Wealth doesn’t trickle down: the case for the developmental state in South Africa; p.129; 2008.

ERWIN then went on to argue that even when an appropriate conjuncture for the NDR and for a developmental state may exist, it will not be brought into being in the absence of “strategic and sustained political leadership. This aspect is of great importance, particularly as the consensus in the literature and theory of the developmental state is that it needs to be constructed, usually under adverse conditions, and that a development-oriented leadership, governance and strategy is therefore one of several critical variables for success.

These factors connect the developmental state and statecraft directly: before one talks about a capable State one needs to talk about a competent Government. Sun Tzu in explaining the five factors that will determine victory or defeat in war, placed a particular emphasis on Statecraft too.

By the 2010 National General Council, the ANC Discussion document on economic transformation had concluded that “implementing a more effective development strategy requires a developmental state, in the sense of a state that can co-ordinate all its efforts around core developmental priorities and implement its programs efficiently. A particular problem is that groups with economic power can lobby the state, or even corrupt officials, to achieve favorable policies at the cost of broader transformation. The pressure comes mostly from large companies, backed by threats of disinvestment, and from black entrepreneurs, who use their personal contacts and the claim of equity to obtain political back up and funding.” The National Planning Commission, which had been established in 2009 to design a National Development Plan, launched its Plan in 2012 after extensive, inclusive if not sometimes rancorous debate, division and contestation. The DPSA started the process of building a capable State that is corruption-free, professional, effective, efficient and ethical. In other words, we can conclude that South Africa has already embarked on the journey of building a democratic developmental state – quite an extraordinary achievement given the short space of time and complexity of the task.


It is always useful to start a discussion by clarifying what meanings we ascribe to some of the key concepts that are central to this series. Concepts, as social constructs and linguistic expressions of ideas in ordinary language, can and do, within certain limitations, have different meanings and the particular meanings used, often reflect ideological preferences, contextual realities and power relationships. Their meanings are not fixed but under conditions of hegemony, some singular, specific meaning may be accorded exclusive preference which will make it seem or appear natural. The definition of a meaning is therefore itself a political act – of this we are acutely aware ourselves – and it is therefore also in the interest of transparency that we lay bare the meanings we attribute to different ideas and concepts.

In the next installment in this series, we will look at the concept of a democratic developmental State and highlight some surprising and counter-intuitive aspects of it.

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