Policy-making and Democracy, by William M Gumede
policy-making process, located at the interface between the political
system and the national economy, is likely to play a pivotal role
in the quality and substance of South Africa’s democracy.
Indeed, a key priority is to formulate policy conducive to favourable
economic outcomes and to manage political conflict over policy.
However, increasingly alarms bells are ringing that policies in
South Africa are often cobbled together in ‘informal’
processes outside democratic institutions and public scrutiny.
struggle in many new democracies has been to reconcile effective
policy formulation with democratic norms of political participation.
Indeed, typically pressures brought to bear on newly democratised
countries – for open economies and sound finance –
increasingly meant that governments are restricting key economic
policies to experts and insulating key public institutions, such
as central banks, fiscal authorities and finance ministries from
democratic scrutiny. The ‘ideal’ politician in many
newly democratised was the ‘technocrat’ or, as described
by Williamson, the ‘technopol’. National authorities
increasingly become more responsive to financial markets than
to their fledgling democratic institutions, such as legislatures,
and to their citizens.
the core issues of economic policy reform – fiscal stability,
debt repayment, privatization, and liberalization – often
require hard choices as they affect social groups, communities
and institutions differently. It is never obvious that there is
only one right way of approaching these issues or that technocrats
are better placed than anyone else to make the right choices.
particular patterns of public decision-making that emerge within
formal constitutional parameters not only affect the sustainability
of democracy, they also help to define the quality of democracy.
In a recent study of the democratic transition in five Andean
countries (Bolivia, Columbia, Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela), Franscisco
Gutierrez Sarin shows how early optimism for democracy gave way
to a general weakening of democratic institutions. He argues that
although none of them has slipped into open dictatorships, all
these countries have seen a gradual installation of a strong presidential
executive, “over which controls have been weakened; weaker
parliamentary organisations; and traditional parties supplanted
by anti-political outsiders.” If citizens believe that newly
democratic institutions are being ignored or downgraded in the
making of decisions in their lives, they may seek solutions outside
of these institutions. This may in the end have negative consequences
for political stability and economic development on the whole.
in South Africa
This raises challenging questions regarding the policy-making
process in South Africa. In 1997, a government-commissioned review
of the provinces, written by the then national Director-General
of Public Service and Administration Paseka Ncholo, identified
‘top-down’ policy thinking in national government
departments as a major problem. It concluded national government
departments ‘give orders’ and see their role as ‘controlling’
policy. Rod Alence’s 1997 study on economic policy-making
for the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) was equally damning.
The report worryingly concluded that parliament had ‘consistently
low influence’ in policy-making. Many interviewees predicted
an escalation of resistance to existing government policies and
modes of policy-making from within ‘civil society’
and the ranks of the ruling ANC alliance.
1999, the restructured Presidency has increasingly taken on a
more dominant role in the policy-making process in post-apartheid
SA. The style of the President, seen by his strategists and himself
as that of a CEO running SA Limited, has significant implications
for policy-making, and for opening up policy-making to the democratic
process. As CEO, Mbeki tightly controls policy-making processes
in Cabinet, government and the ANC.
with the start of the Mbeki Presidency, new centres of influence
on policy-making – outside the elected representative system
– have been established. Key among them are the presidential
working groups: big business, black business, trade union, agriculture,
international investment advisory council, and international IT
council. Significant policies had their genesis or were fleshed
out in these presidential groups and were presented to Parliament
and the public as fait accompli.
democracies, parliaments are expected to provide platforms for
articulating citizens’ choices, scrutinising government
policies, and providing legitimacy for policy outcomes –
even if they prove to be wrong. Instead, South Africa’s
Parliament has been increasingly sidelined from policymaking.
Indeed, it is increasingly labelled a ‘lame-duck’
and a ‘rubber-stamp’.
following are some examples of key policies insulated from democratic
The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) –
the Mbeki-led attempt to lead a renewal in Africa’s social,
economic and development fortunes – was not discussed
widely. It has run into a wall of opposition from civil society
groups within South Africa and elsewhere on the continent.
was trade policy broadly canvassed. For example, Parliament
was never involved in the decision to lift South Africa’s
tariff barriers faster than even the Word Trade Organisation
(WTO) demands – causing widespread economic pain.
agriculture presidential working group put together a strategic
plan that aimed to contribute to growth and make a dent in rural
poverty within the next three years. The agriculture department,
AgriSA and the National African Farmers' Union, drafted the
plan and set up a permanent joint committee to implement it
as the new strategic plan for SA farming. The fact that only
“an elite few” had been consulting in drawing up
the agriculture and land reform blueprints sparked widespread
Growth and Development Summit, scheduled in mid 2003, and one
of the democracy’s major economic events, was agreed upon
at a joint sitting of the big business, black business, trade
union and agriculture working groups. The summit aimed to cobble
together a consensus between business, labour and government,
similar to the post-second war Western European pacts in the
Netherlands or Ireland, which agreed on a common development
path for the country. However, Parliament was not consulted
and many groups in society – including opposition parties
– felt excluded.
1998, the Presidential Jobs Summit, aimed at cutting high unemployment
levels, faltered on the back of complaints that only a few people
were included in drawing up the policies.
significant new policy making forum – outside democratic
institutions – was the Millennium Labour Council (MLC),
formed in 2000 by organised business and labour to reach agreements
over contentious labour policies. In 2001, trade unions and
organised business leaders agreed on key labour legislation
in secluded negotiations at the MLC.
Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), aimed at bringing blacks into
the commanding heights of the economy, was never broadly canvassed.
As a result, it was opposed from potential beneficiaries, who
accused it of being elitist and only benefiting the well-connected
few, while in white circles it was viewed with deep suspicion.
However, BEE has been a case where sufficient public disquiet
forced government to rethink and take it to the drawing board
to refine policies to make it much broader. For example, the
draft Minerals and Energy Bill, shrouded in secrecy, was leaked
in 2002, slashing the share prices of many local mining companies.
The whole BEE policy process was rethought, although not sufficiently
and broadly enough. Trade union groups have started to galvanise
opposition to BEE, with some groups even trying to block BEE
transactions in court.
contrast, labour policy is a key example of a policy that has
been broadly consulted. While some government and business figures
would like to dismantle many of the basic workplace rights which
they claim create an inflexible labour market – though
many reports have shown the contrary – actual changes
have been minor, despite indignant responses from the trade
union movement. A compromise was put together between government,
business and labour, and the result is a much more harmonious
labour market than previously, and with much less labour disputes
and industrial action.
tendency to centralise policy-making in the Presidency has been
justified by arguing that more centralised policy co-ordination
and monitoring would smooth implementation of policies. The oft-repeated
saying is: government must govern, whilst the dominant argument
in government circles since 1999 has been based on ‘delivery’.
The implication is – wrongly - that consultation would slow
down the policy-making and implementation process. As Steven Friedman
argues, it holds by implication that citizens place a purely instrumental
value on democracy, or ‘delivering’ goods and services
can secure that loyalty to citizens. Indeed, the implication is
that if some democratic intangibles, such as the right to influence
policy, must be compromised in the process, the gains in citizen
confidence will far outweigh any democratic losses. This reflects
an implied believe that there is a trade off between material
improvement and democratic quality. This goes against the grain
of data from developing countries compiled among others by Dani
Rodrik that democracy is not only compatible with growth and poverty
reduction, but may be crucial to both. The challenge lies not
in ‘delivering’, at the expense of democratic participation,
but in broadening democratic participation. Indeed, in South Africa,
inclusive policy-making might be ‘a pre-condition of economic
growth and sustainable development.
Making economic policy ‘sacrosanct’ meant that government’s
centrepiece market-friendly Growth, Employment and Redistribution
Strategy (GEAR) does not have the same kind of grassroots ‘ownership’
the RDP had. Gear is now seen, rightly or wrongly as ‘against’
the ‘people’. This often feeds into people’s
anxiety that they do not feel part of the new democratic deal.
The debate on policy-making has often descended into a ritual
of labelling and name-calling. Moreover, crucial economic, social
and development debates are often conducted via the extremes of
‘us’ against ‘them’. From the government’s
perspective, if you are not on the side of the government economic
reforms, you are likely to be labelled ‘ultra-left’.
From the opposite perspective, if you do not wholeheartedly share
their criticism of government policy, you are likely to be coined
a ‘sell-out’ or in the pockets of ‘big business’.
South Africa, because of the high levels of inequality and unequal
access to key public forums, important opinions are easily shutout
because those holding such opinions are too poor to influence
party leaders or access institutions such as the media or Parliament.
They or their opinions are not part of the national consensus.
In other cases, the media or public institutions are reluctant
to bring their issues to the front, for fear of being seen as
promoting the ‘ultra-left’. In the end, the new ‘marginalised’
feel it appealing to use extreme actions to get their voices heard,
risking even further alienation from the centres of power.
the alarm bells are sounding at that fact that major policies
in the new democracy are increasingly drawn up by the select few.
It is now a widespread perception that parliament is simply ignored
on economic policy, that it has become a rubberstamp. Policies
are decided elsewhere. Public and civil society participation
in policy-making has been greatly reduced. Not surprisingly, such
policies have been fiercely resisted at grassroots level, making
their implementation at times very costly.
citizens, feeling alienated from the policy-making processes,
are increasingly using illegal methods to make their voices heard.
There has been a rise in civil society protests in South Africa.
Many, feeling excluded from the insulated policy-making processes,
have taken their grievances to the streets. Post-apartheid’s
most visible social movement, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC),
has embarked on civil disobedience to pressure government to make
AIDS drugs available to sufferers. Other new mushrooming social
movements prefer to use illegal methods to fight the debilitating
effects – retrenchments, increase service tariffs - of privatisation
policies. For example, members of the Soweto Electricity Crisis
Committee (SECC), illegally switch on the electricity of township
dwellers who have seen their power cut because of non-payment,
following rates increases set out in GEAR.
voter turnouts in South African elections tend to mask increasingly
disillusionment with the political process. The youth are increasingly
staying away from voting. Furthermore, overall voter turnout has
slipped from 89 percent in 1994 to 76 percent in 2004. Though
it still shames voter turnout in most developed countries, it
reflects increasing disenchantment among the poor in the political
process. Ahead of the 2004 elections the Landless Peoples Movement
called on people not to vote.
the dangers of ethnic mobilisation by those who feel alienated
by the political process are ever present. Race still remains
a significant social cleavage in South Africa. Disillusionment
in the political process could easily be used by unscrupulous
politicians to mobilise the disgruntled on the basis that they
are excluded from decision-making because of their ‘race’.