A forest’s worth of comment has been devoted to the new cabinet unveiled by President Jacob Zuma.
My eye caught one of the less politically sexy transfers announced last Sunday: the decision to move Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma from dealing with the affairs of the world to the smaller but, arguably, even more anarchic, universe of home affairs, where the long-serving former foreign minister will now preside. She will need less quiet diplomacy and more shouting and shoving, if she is to succeed.
The announcement coincided with my own transition from parliamentarian to private citizen. In between writing and speaking engagements, I find myself reflecting on gains and losses.
I will certainly not miss the often dreary non-debates about non-issues which, over the past decade, often passed as the staple of parliamentary engagement. Nor will I mourn, too deeply, the dark arts of political in-fighting and intrigue with which political leadership is associated.
But it will be a challenge and a welcome reality check to experience the daily tribulations of ordinary citizens.
Part of the compensation for listening to all those dreary speeches and enduring the rituals of endless protocols is that MPs are spared from the hassles of, for example, dealing with home affairs. An MP has to threaten neither homicide nor suicide to obtain an ID book or renew a passport. I had the advantage, along with the rest of parliament, of an ultra-efficient and courteous home affairs official who would visit either my office with the necessary forms, or arrange an appointment to process the required document speedily.
This is not the experience and expectation of the rest of South Africa, to put matters at their mildest.
I am not outing my former colleagues about some unearned advantage. But it goes to the point so brilliantly underlined by Professor Paul Collier, director of the Centre for African Economics at Oxford University and author of a recent and riveting work, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What can be Done About It.
South Africa’s position in the middle ranks of world economies does not qualify us for automatic inclusion in the author’s diagnosis. But Collier’s point on the difference between successful and failing departments of state could have been drawn directly from our experience.
He notes that many governments in the developing world, such as South Africa, have removed the revenue-raising function from the traditional civil service. His explanation is both accurate and uncomfortable: “Why did governments go for the radical option on revenue but not on service delivery? The answer is depressingly obvious. Governments benefit from the revenue, whereas ordinary people benefit from basic services. Governments were not prepared to let the traditional civil service continue to sabotage tax revenues because governments themselves were the victims. They were prepared to leave basic service delivery unreformed because the governing elite got its services elsewhere.”
The new minister of finance, Pravin Gordhan, is much admired for his achievements as our chief tax collector. In 2007, on the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the SA Revenue Service, it was recorded that the outfit had topped the half-a-trillion rand mark in revenue collection for the decade. That year alone, it had exceeded, by some 16%, the original printed estimate for taxes.
No doubt, Gordhan is a sharp manager. But the decision back in 1977 to create SARS as “an administratively autonomous revenue agency functioning independently from the public service administration”, to use the full glory of government-speak, was a decisive factor in improving, nay, radically transforming, the coffers of the state.
When Dlamini-Zuma studies her new in-tray, she will see that our local problems with home affairs have now been universalised. Hot on the heels of the British government’s decision to require South Africans to obtain visas for the UK is a new US Department of State Country Report on Terrorism. With just more than a year to go before our showpiece World Cup, it makes gloomy reading. It cites “poor administration”, “lack of institutional capacity” and “corruption” in home affairs as hampering our government’s ability to “pursue and intervene in counterterrorism initiatives”.
Today’s depiction of home affairs could have been, a decade or so ago, an accurate working description of the old Receiver of Revenue, as SARS was known pre-transformation.
The decision to yank revenue collection outside the stifling embrace of the public service was decisive. No quotas, no inappropriate wage and occupational bands, coupled with the importation of skills and technology and Gordhan’s management, turned a dysfunctional department into the brightest star in a fairly bleak universe of service delivery.
The former minister of finance, now enthroned as our planning czar, became famous for requesting tips for his budget. Perhaps the man who has now taken his place, and filled the coffers, could pass along some of his own. Home affairs would be a good place to start.
*Published Sunday Times 17 May 2009