LETTER: Friedman’s state-owned enterprise fantasy
South Africans have no direct say in how SOEs are managed or held accountable
I’m afraid Steven Friedman’s latest column has strayed into what can only charitably be called fantasy land. (Jabu Mabuza's resignation boosts governance, January 14).
He tells us that the resignation of Eskom chair Jabu Mabuza is a sterling example of political accountability, since he had promised there would be no load-shedding until January 13 and resigned when that promise turned out to be false.
In effect, as Carol Paton pointed out in her excellent column the previous day, Mabuza had warned, in the December meeting at Eskom’s headquarters in Megawatt Park attended by President Cyril Ramaphosa, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and deputy president David Mabuza, of the risk attendant to the promise of no load-shedding until January 13 (Mabuza and Mashatile light the torches of a lynching, January 13).
Breakdowns are unpredictable and can therefore happen at any time, he said. In his resignation letter, Mabuza put it on record that this proviso as to the unpredictable nature of load-shedding had been included in the final official statement released by Eskom. So it is not the case that Mabuza resigned because he could not keep a promise: he never actually made that promise in the first place.
By all means, let us praise his honourable conduct, but that has nothing to do with a broken promise. His resignation was one more example of the cost paid by honest public figures who venture to take on politically toxic positions in the running or supervision of corruption-infested state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
Secondly, it is manifestly untrue that there is an effective accountability mechanism whereby SOEs are, as Friedman puts it, “accountable to the citizenry and, therefore, to politics”. There is no such mechanism of accountability, not just regarding SOEs but across the entire spectrum of SA politics, from national to regional to municipal government, service-delivery protests being the most egregious example.
It is sheer fantasy to claim, in Friedman’s words, that “as [SOEs] are publicly owned companies they need to do only what their owner, the citizenry, wants them to do. Governments are elected to ensure that the public gets the service it wants”. A noble and high-sounding statement, no doubt, but the reality in SA is that the citizenry has no say in the running of SOEs and the ANC government has by no means fulfilled its pledge to ensure that the public gets the service it wants.
Thirdly, Friedman claims everyone has a right to judge what SOEs do: “If South Africans want an SOE to do or not to do something they can, and should, campaign for change … if citizens don’t like the message ministers send to SOEs, they are entitled to pressure the ministers into changing their minds”.
I get it. From now on I will pressure Ramaphosa and the soon-to-be-demoted Gordhan to steer SOEs in a specific direction of my choosing.
Apart from the unreality of such a suggestion, this is not how modern representative democracies work. They work on the basis of a well-established division of political labour: we elect representatives to act on our behalf and we hold them accountable through periodic elections.
The job of managing the economy and steering SOEs is entirely in the hands of our elected representatives. Civil society can intervene when major failures of accountability occur, such as during the presidency of Jacob Zuma, but are under no obligation to indicate how SOEs should be managed.
This is the job of government, which, as we know, it has manifestly failed to do due to corruption, mismanagement and cadre deployment.
Maurizio Passerin d’Entreves
Professor emeritus, UCT
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