The Anc’s “developmental State”: An Enemy Of Opportunity

About this Article

We believe, rather than the ostensible drive to improve the lives of South Africans it claims to be, the ANC’s "developmental state" serves as a useful foil for a political agenda defined by the impulse to centralise power in the executive, to conflate party and state and, in doing so, to subvert the Constitution. By defining it in detail, describing its history and setting out the practical and damaging ways in which it has manifested, we hope to help better understand this idea and its implications for the country’s future.

Why it is necessary to define the developmental state

Since coming to power in 1994 the ANC’s attitude to government policy has been two-fold: on the one hand, it has produced a bulk of legislation which, no matter your view on its merits, is openly debatably and readily identified – as it is set out in clear terms in public documents and discussed in public forums. On the other hand, however, it has also introduced a series of other, far more murky, concepts into our public discourse. These play a defining role in the ANC government’s thinking and yet, are never properly articulated or set out in any detail; and so any proper interrogation of their merits is next to impossible. Chief among these is the notion of ‘transformation’ but, more recently, a new idea has come to define the ruling party’s thinking about government policy: the developmental state.

In both the State of the Nation Address and the Budget Speech, President Zuma and Finance Minister Gordhan respectively evoked the concept. And yet this key ideological principle has not been defined. There is no document, political or otherwise, which sets out what the ANC’s ‘developmental state’ really is, its nature, its parameters, it implications for public spending and the nature of the relationship between the economy and the state.

Rather it is implicit, the ghost between the lines; every government speech makes reference to it, but no public document defines it. And so any interpretation of it needs to be extracted from the implicit manner in which it is referred and the very real ways in which it manifests; which is what the Democratic Alliance has done in this document. It is an indictment of the ruling party that it has not been open and honest about the idea with the South African people, because its implications are profound and its consequences – which to date have been almost entirely detrimental – have a real and meaningful impact on the lives of every South African citizen.

What is the developmental state?

The concept of developmental state derives from a very particular history outside of South Africa’s own. That background is fairly complex and it is not necessary to define it in detail here – our document does that – suffice to say that it has been widely discredited as it been more responsible for producing repression than development and economic progress.

It was first introduced into the South African political lexicon in 2001, by President Mbeki, and has been regularly evoked since. At the ANC’s general conference in Polokwane the idea was formally tabled and adopted as central to the ruling party’s (and government’s) thinking – although still undefined and not properly articulated. Since, the far left has claimed credit for the idea and number of its broad objectives have resulted in particular policy developments. In a press conference after Polokwane, Jeremy Cronin defined the developmental state as "an active state with the capacity to intervene in the economy to coordinate and drive transformation". It was Cronin that put forward the notion of a National Planning Commission, necessary, he said, to drive this process.

Cobbling together an ideological outline of the developmental state, based on the various obscure references to it in ANC and government documents, it can be fairly described as having the following characteristics:

  • A centralised administration with much power vested in the hands of the executive;
  • An interventionist attitude, where the executive routinely involves itself in all levels of government and every aspect of the state’s administration;
  • Huge capital expenditure;
  • A large and expanding bureaucracy; and
  • Centralised control over the economy and its administration, the result of which is the stifling of competition and the constraining of the market.

The problem with this broad approach is that it is coupled together with a number of political programmes, on the ANC’s part, which serve only to further warp any good intentions that might have informed this misguided conception. Of these, cadre deployment is perhaps the most damaging. Because if the state’s attitude from first principles is to control everything, and that drive is reinforced by a political programmes designed so that the ruling party in particular controls everything, the result is the conflation of party and state, the subversion of the Constitution and a public administration which serves, first and foremost, the interests of a ruling elite and those connected to it.

In this respect, the consequences of the ANC’s developmental state can also be broadly identified:


  •  The politicisation of the public service;
  • Regular and substantial bailouts of state-owned entities;
  • Poor service delivery;
  • The subversion of excellence and merit;
  • A task rather than outcomes orientated state;
  • The abuse of public money for personal gain, not merely in terms of perks and privileges but with regard to corruption and nepotism; and
  • The stifling of competition.

Why the developmental state does not work

The DA argues that the South African state cannot in any meaningful sense be characterised as developmental. It lacks critical management capacity; it does not have a skilled, efficient, and meritocratic bureaucratic elite; the ANC’s policy of cadre deployment has ravaged the public service, fuelled corruption, and stalled service delivery; and too many state institutions are already so incapacitated and overwhelmed that giving them additional responsibilities and powers of intervention when the state cannot execute some of its core functions is likely to cripple them altogether.

The state is currently struggling to fulfil some of its most basic functions, such as keeping its citizens safe from crime, providing quality education and healthcare, generating sufficient electricity and delivering essential services. Moreover, key benchmarked international indices of human development, such as the United Nations’ Development Programmes Human Development Index and the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance – both released in October last year – suggest that the South African state is overplaying its own developmental claims.

Against this backdrop, question marks must be raised over the ANC’s renewed determination to build a bigger, even more interventionist developmental state, which is likely to overwhelm and incapacitate already overloaded state institutions.

How this ideological problem manifests in practical terms

The most immediate problem with the developmental state is its attitude to state-owned entities, which are now in an advanced state of crises and several on the verge of complete meltdown. In the ANC’s vision, parastatals are the vanguard of the developmental state. Centrally controlled and managed, they are supposed to be at the forefront of service delivery. But because the ANC refuses to reward excellence and as its primary concern is control, it has, over the past decade, created a public service that is neither meritocratic nor outcomes orientated. Political considerations, not service delivery, define appointments and leadership positions serve a patronage agenda. Their poor management costs the public enormous amounts in bailouts and the value anyone extracts from the tax they pay is denuded.

In real terms this has a profound impact on the lives of South African citizens, for almost every interaction with the state is defined by ineptitude and poor customer service. Whether one needs an ID document, to pay a TV licence, to receive electricity, to pursue a land claim, to catch a train or to drive on a road – the management of our public amenities has declined to a dangerously low level. And so public distrust in the state’s ability to deliver is eroded and frustration mounts.

The DA’s alternative

The primary purpose of this document and why the DA is making it public is twofold. On the one hand, we believe it essential that the idea of a developmental state be properly defined and articulated and that this is in the public interest; on the other hand, and resulting from that, we hope to start a meaningful debate about the idea and its consequences.

The DA’s vision of an Open Opportunity Society for All has been well articulated, we believe, in various documents. Most recently, the party produced an alternative budget – our vision for how public money should spent if we are to give life to the idea of an Open Opportunity Society for All. The principles and values that define our vision are clearly set out in that document and, we believe, serve as a powerful counter-point to the ANC’s understanding of the developmental state and, indeed, its understanding of its own role in South Africa’s administration.

Comments are closed.

Leave a Reply