A renowned American author, Prof Chalmers Ashby Johnson, is well known for having coined the developmental state concept. For him, a developmental state occurs when the state has a focused role on the growth and development of the economy and undertakes necessary policy measures to accomplish this long-term objective.

In this regard, the Southeast Asian countries (known as Asian Tigers), such as Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam and South Korea, are good examples of nations, which, in the context of a developmental state, successfully (though not perfectly) ushered in economic growth and recovery.

They departed from the Bretton-Woods orthodox policies of development and employed a Weberian approach, which concerns itself with resourceful and efficient bureaucratic systems that are internal and inter-related (a notion of a strong and capable public service).

There is no doubt that the Asian Tigers provide the best practice for global nations to learn from, especially those in Africa. The continent has some examples of nations that followed suit, notably Ghana, Botswana and Rwanda, which have been acknowledged to have pursued the development trajectory fairly  successfully (though not perfectly).

In our case, in SA, the notion of a developmental state has been a hubbub for almost 20 years, from politicians — especially those of the ANC and senior government officials. They continue to claim that SA is in motion with the noble agenda of a developmental state, and sometimes declare the country as being one.

This is a hazy concept in our case due to lack of evidence, at least in our contextual discourse and in literature in general, of what is meant by the concept. However, politicians and officials confidently use the term despite the vague meaning ascribed to it, in our context. Despite lack of consensus on what it means in SA’s case, it has nonetheless found expression in the country’s most important policy documents.

For example, in about 2000, the ANC adopted what it termed developmental local government, which was acclaimed as ground breaking, and necessary for building capacity in the local sphere of government to service local communities. However, the results unfortunately reveal the contrary in our local municipalities. Almost 60% of municipalities are in dire straits in the Eastern Cape. These were the shocking revelations by the MEC of economic development, Oscar Mabuyane two months ago that most CFOs in municipalities are under-qualified for the job.

The New Growth Path (2010) for example, said it would halve unemployment by creating at least 500,000 jobs by 2020 and argued that this would help SA to respond to the structural problems of inequality, poverty and unemployment. You can be the judge if, indeed, these jobs are created in the next two  years, let alone contribute to reducing our structural problems. 

Furthermore, chapter 13 of the National Development Plan (NDP)  avows that social and economic transformation is impossible without a capable and developmental state, thus this policy document entrenches this hazy concept as fundamental for the country’s growth strategy.

More broadly, the developmental objective is undertaken as a necessary remedy for nations with historical injustices of colonialism, and apartheid in SA’s case, which continue to be manifested through poverty, inequality and unemployment. In this context, my view is that the state broadly lacks vision, leadership, as well as capacity to effect a radical transformation of society even within a shortened period.

To this effect, and correctly so, Joel Natshitenzhe, in his 2015 paper Class Dynamics and State Transformation in SA, implores us that, the drive developmental state agenda, as many countries have done, premised on the political will in government, which as I indicated does not exist in SA leadership let alone commitment. Whilst in policy documents as aforementioned, we are a nation in pursuit of a developmental agenda, in reality evidence exist no-where pointing to new industries created or promoted by the state as part of efforts gearing towards this noble goal. Instead of promoting industrial policies, our government plays a rather weak regulatory role.

SA requires leadership with foresight and not swayed by capital interest (which unfortunately does not exist), to use fiscal and monetary policies to direct state ownership and control of key industries and sectors of the economy. Because of poor judgement and deficiency in leadership for almost 25 years, the country continues to take for granted the fact that a successful developmental trajectory in most countries was, among other things, centered on a strong, professional, competent and adept public service. We have unfortunately paid a lip service in building a strong, professional and proficient state to direct and support economic growth and development through effective state entities that can drive strategic investments initiatives. In other words, as a ‘country claiming to be in pursuit of a developmental agenda’ we do not have the necessary mechanisms or instruments such as professional and highly skilled bureaucracy to dispatch and drive our developmental agenda. Please do not get me wrong, we do have a highly sophisticated and advanced skilled personnel in SA no doubt about that, but it is not part of the public service, and for me that obstructs any aspirations of having a pointed and objective, rational developmental agenda.

Lastly, our state owned entities are supposedly central in transforming and driving this developmental agenda. However, they are swamped with poor governance, weak management thus corruption is inevitable. Unfortunately, this for me impedes their effective role in driving the developmental agenda. It is not an accident of history that these SOEs now and again require bailouts from national treasury. To this end, there is discussion ensuing in this discourse, partly emanating from the government circles that, bailing SOEs is not sustainable, therefore the solution is privatization.

The incumbent Minister of Finance is on record backing this privatization perspective. However, there is a strong view against privatization, I can bet that the new administration led by President Cyril Ramaphosa will decisively without fail privatize some SOEs such as Eskom, SAA and Transnet. He may understandably dismiss the view now for electoral calculation, but he will eventually accede to this view, I suppose for private capital and this will disable the state to strategically intervene and direct the economy to pursue the developmental agenda.

Sibiya is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Research Education and Labour at Wits University. He writes in his personal capacity.