STUART THEOBALD: With Zuma gone, talk on policy may be back in vogue

It is almost safe for us to return to a vibrant policy discussion and the treasury should be applauded for getting it going

This column was first published in Business Day

In the post-Zuma political era, is it safe to talk about policy again?

We stopped two years ago. One of the tragedies of the Zuma era is that policy was demoted to an irrelevancy, with the contest focused entirely on who had access to power by controlling key institutions from the National Prosecuting Authority to the Reserve Bank.

Replacing policy debate with institutional defence was logical — once captured, institutions stopped being instruments of policy anyway. Normally opposed policy blocs, from big business to the SA Communist Party, found themselves united in the defence effort.

We have not completely escaped this era. One of the most headline-grabbing features of the ANC’s election manifesto is a sentence on amending the mandate of the Reserve Bank. This is classic institutional contestation, with a fig leaf of policy intention over it.

The Bank was targeted by the Zuma faction because it was a key threat to the state capture machine. From the shutting of Gupta bank accounts to the forensic investigation of VBS Mutual Bank, the central bank was key in several remaining institutional blockages to state capture.

At that decisive December 2017 ANC electoral conference, the rearguard action against the Bank saw the ANC resolve to nationalise it. That resolution was hard fought. The constitutionalist faction lost the battle while winning the larger one for the presidency. The wording was blunt: the Bank should be 100% owned by the state, meaning there should be no private shareholders.

This was not about policy — it was about control, and that was clear to anyone who had seen the state capture machine in its institutional attack mode. As has often been pointed out, the Bank is an instrument of policy with very clear legislated responsibilities. No one has even attempted to make the case that the Bank’s ownership has any effect on the Bank’s ability to deliver on policy.

ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, a man deeply compromised by his own links to the Guptas, has been the vanguard in pushing that resolution forward. He inflamed the manifesto’s impact by claiming in a television interview that the “flexible monetary policy regime” that the manifesto refers to means the Bank would be nationalised. Of course, he can defend himself by claiming he was merely referring to the conference resolution, but, as philosophers say, a proximate reason is not the ultimate reason.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has been unequivocal in response in insisting that the Reserve Bank’s independence is sacrosanct. The reference to nationalisation, he insists, is merely an indication that the party wants the Bank to “keep an eye on employment” in implementing its mandate. That shifts the focus back to policy and away from control of the institution. Plus, it amounts to the status quo.

The remnants of the Zuma faction are kicking viciously, but I suspect these are the dying kicks of a body that has lost its head. Indeed, the debates over the policies that will get SA on to a faster growth path to deal with the challenges of poverty and inequality have begun again.

The clearest instance has been the two policy colloquiums that  the Treasury has organised, with the most recent held last weekend after an initial session a month ago. They have brought together some excellent policy minds, local and foreign, to figure out ways we can break through barriers to dealing with low economic growth and the challenges of poverty and inequality.

The challenges of policy implementation, fixing the education system, and much else has been discussed. The colloquiums’ discussion will inform a paper to be presented to the cabinet. This is the kind of careful thinking and debate, so needed, that was abandoned in the Zuma era.

The colloquiums have not been without critics. A group of economists and policy thinkers, led by ANC stalwart Ben Turok, wrote a letter last week to finance minister Tito Mboweni criticising the colloquiums for being “disappointingly skewed towards economic orthodoxy” and sitting squarely “within the box”. It is difficult to square this criticism with the facts though. The colloquiums appear to have heard a wide variety of fresh voices.

For instance one of the major contributors to the weekend’s debate was Nic Spaull, a young academic at Stellenbosch University working on how to improve the education system. Another was Wandile Sihlobo, an exciting young agricultural economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber, with vigorous ideas on our many land and rural development challenges.

The right way to engage would be through research and scholarship to take the debate forward. That kind of open policy engagement is what we need, one in which our institutions can be relied on to act as instruments of policy rather than personal enrichment.

It is almost safe for us to return to a vibrant policy discussion. The teasury should be applauded for getting it going. Now the challenge of all policy thinkers is to produce the research that will advance the debate.