THEMBINKOSI GCOYI: SA’s ideology-driven policy-making by fiat – BusinessLIVE

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South Africans have long held the view that lack of policy implementation, rather than poor policy-making per se, is what hamstrings the country’s economic growth and sustainable development. This view was amplified during the presidency of Jacob Zuma, as his government acquired a reputation of adopting ill-thought-through policies.
The ascendance of Cyril Ramaphosa to the highest office in the land in 2018 was meant to be a watershed moment for SA’s policy-making landscape. There was an expectation that his government would embrace best practice in public policy-making, thus finding balance between competing priorities.
Ramaphosa’s consultative style was seen as a break from the particularly egregious style of his predecessor’s policy-making, which in 2016 shocked the mining industry with an overnight proclamation of a new Mining Charter by then mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane. Though we are no longer in those choppy waters, it is fair to say not much progress has been made in creating a policy-making environment that is welcoming of dissent and alternative views.
A growing section of society is complaining about being ignored in the policy-making process: from the Protection of State Information Bill to the Liquor Products Amendment Bill, Performers Protection Amendment Bill, Copyright Amendment Bill, and National Land Transportation Amendment Bill. This is to be expected in any normal democracy. Contestation over ideas is an important element of the process. However, in the present circumstances complaints are as much about process as they are about substantive issues raised in draft policies and legislation.
This state of affairs is alarming. On the one hand it speaks of a dysfunctional governance system that is beholden to biases, ideologies and the petty interests of dominant actors. On the other it betrays a crippled institutional machinery that lacks capacity, institutional knowledge and transparency. It speaks of an arrogant government that cannot accept that it governs for the public good and that the public is a legitimate partner in this exercise.
Under the Thabo Mbeki presidency SA used the cluster system to streamline policy-making and implementation. Though not without its challenges, it provided for clear processes that enabled different government departments and stakeholders to interface with policy proposals in an earnest way. These days it is questionable whether the cluster system exercises any function at all over policy-making. Rather, it seems as if it has become a platform to rubber stamp departmental proposals, without any serious effort to interrogate them. The same is probably true of cabinet considering the number of hare-brained policy proposals that have come out of government in the recent past.
Though it predates Ramaphosa’s presidency, the adoption of the Socio-Economic Impact Assessment System in 2016, and subsequently the National Policy Development Framework in 2020, came as a breath of fresh air. These policy instruments are meant to strengthen policy-making. Both demand that government consult widely and rely on scientific evidence for its policy choices. Yet it appears most government departments are not swayed by the logic of these important policy-making frameworks.
Almost every sector of the economy has some or other complaint about a government that pretends to listen but does not. This is particularly bad in so-called “sin” industries, where government has given itself permission to do whatever it likes because it has the cover of good intentions. While this may sound right on paper, it ignores the fact that ideologically driven policy-making often makes things worse. It also leads to job losses and stagnation of industries at a time when SA cannot afford either.
For its part, the National Treasury has been wielding its power to make taxation policy and ram through unsustainable tax increases, despite the difficult conditions faced by many sectors. These include the alcohol, tobacco and sugar industries. Attempts to increase the sugar tax are wrong-headed and fail to take account of the declining sugar growing industry in the country.
The assertion that raising the sugar tax will contribute to lowering obesity, seems, at face value, to be a convenient cover to raise revenue, rather than an earnest attempt to deal with the problem of obesity and noncommunicable diseases. Similarly, the proposed tax on vaping seems to rely on the opinions of health department officials and anti-tobacco lobbyists in the guise of health experts, rather than any robust scientific evidence on the harms of vaping. Sadly, both proposals are likely to win favour in parliament due to the majoritarian approach of this critical arm of the state.
At the same time, parliament is intent on adopting the most unpopular version of the Electoral Amendment Act to safeguard the interests of political parties already represented in parliament. Despite a public outcry about some of the provisions of the bill, the ANC and EFF seem intent on protecting their incumbency, even at the expense of strengthening SA’s democracy. This despite knowing full well that the bill will most likely end up at the Constitutional Court, where some of its most important provisions may be struck down.
It is increasingly apparent that Ramaphosa’s government is not averse to its predecessor’s penchant for policy-making by fiat. This is bound to hamstring SA’s participatory democracy and increase civic disengagement from the important processes of governance.
• Gcoyi is MD of Frontline Africa Advisory.
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