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Lessons from China about policy in the country and dealing with corruption

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

Published Nov 29, 2021


THREE important pieces of public policy discussions with profound implications on what policy paths South Africa follows caught and occupied my attention last week.

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These contributions lay bare the default policy position South Africa has taken, and the disastrous autopilot posture cabinet has assumed. It is ending in tears.

The first is a contribution by Michael Sachs, a former treasury policy official, who opens with a column titled The chronic position of the country’s public finances continues to worsen, which can be seen in several metrics in the Conversation paper.

The second is the webinar, which the principal of the National School of Government, Professor Busani Ngcaweni, arranged. This was addressed by Chinese Professor Zang Weiwei on the concept of Civilizational State.

The third was a webinar, in which I was a presenter, arranged by Professor Francis Petersen, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, titled Looking through a crystal ball: Predications for 2022.

Sachs anchors his arguments by raising two important departure points of economic stagnation and the incoherence of government policy, but for the latter, he fails to say Treasury is the Policy of South Africa. Through his political economy soliloquy, Sachs talks through both corners of his mouth explaining treasury responses in the context of the recent Medium Term Budget Policy Statement by Minister of Finance, Enoch Godongwana.

He applauds treasury for erring on caution, but also wakes up to the nightmare that: “As long as Cabinet appears caught in the headlights, unable to offer a programme to overcome the grave operational and financial crises in the provision of municipal services, electricity, water, road construction, and passenger rail declarations that ‘there will be no bailout’ are posturing”.

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The ongoing destruction of value must be reflected somewhere in the national balance sheet, even if it is not recognised in the budget.” In this political economy soliloquy Sachs identifies the winners and the losers, which is a core point that Weiwei discusses in his thesis of civilisational state.

The presentation by Weiwei on civilisational state provided a political economy lens of the world substantively seen through the lens of the United States and China.

He reflected on the devastating effects of the structural adjustments that were unleashed on the developing world, especially Africa, Latin America and Russia. These are now rejected even by the mighty US. What ran throughout the theme was people matter.

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This reminds me of the Batho Pele or People First Principle in South Africa, which was the hallmark of struggle but tumbled in the dustbin of a pile of other struggle slogans as the capitalist class that cheered Godongwana’s budget see the dollar signs written all over the budget.

In China, rather than debate with the West on democracy, they would debate on good governance and bad governance. In this regard, it is whether people enjoy the material benefits of life in guaranteed safety and security while advancing meritocracy and science in statecraft. China has not risen to be the top country in the fourth industrial revolution and securing lead advantage in the fifth industrial revolution by fiat but through deliberate meritocratic statecraft of long-term planning and utter intolerance for corruption.

Whether this time, around South Africa through its bureaucrats, will pick lessons from China and whether the Treasury will seize to be The Policy is to be seen.

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But if the lessons on the wheeling and dealing for positions circus in the recent local government election is anything to go by, the crystal ball sought by Professor Petersen for 2022 is best explained by Boris Yeltsin when he said: “This year is certainly better than next year”.

One has to contemplate whether the recent lecture by Weiwei was cause for course correction or de ja vu of broken sticks in the ears of South Africa’s broken course.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa. Meet him at and @Palilj01.

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.


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