Graham Sell: Tackling issues of land redistribution, the NHI and size of Cabinet

JOHANNESBURG — Taking a step back and analysing the rise of Cyril Ramaphosa to the top job in South African politics, Graham Sell offers his thoughts on how government should tackle its most pressing issues. From the land question to the implementation of NHI and the size of Cabinet, Sell offers his thoughts on how best the ANC and Ramaphosa can and should navigate these waters. – Gareth van Zyl

By Graham Sell*

Why is it that when most of us are enjoying a positive and happy moment, there are always others miserable enough to try to burst our bubble? It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, whether it be a marriage “….of course, you know it will never last!”; a well-deserved promotion at work “….he/she obviously must have slept with the boss!”; or the election of a new President after a decade of misrule by a kleptocratic psychopath, there are always those who will find fault.  

Graham Sell

Do I think that Cyril Ramaphosa can deliver nirvana for South Africa? Of course not. Will politicians in general ultimately disappoint me? Almost certainly. Will that stop me from putting my shoulder to the wheel trying to help make good things happen? Absolutely not. I categorically refuse to be dragged down by the mean-spirited “They are stuffing up Our country”, glass-half-empty armchair cynics who make no effort for SA, then smugly announce “I told you so!”. We have another chance to build our nation into what we want it to be, and I will do everything I can to help turn the dream into reality. I know it can never be perfect, but the least I can do is contribute towards the effort needed to dig ourselves out of the mire Zuma has left us in.

Starting with the premise that South Africa is my country and, even though I didn’t vote for them, the ANC are currently running my Government, let me try to address what is, at least for South Africa’s White population, one of the more contentious issues stemming from SONA 2018.

Expropriation of Land Without Compensation: I must admit to also having a degree of trepidation on this subject, but my nervousness relates to the execution, rather than the principle of the proposal – bearing in mind that if the present land redistribution program had been run effectively, we would probably not be facing this conundrum. That aside, there is no doubt that if we want to avoid the economically destructive tenets of Marxist/Leninist/Fanonian ideologies, where the State owns all the land and individuals own none, many more people need to be brought into the circle of land ownership. The more people there are vested in land, the more able we will be to resist the totally destructive stupidity of these failed populist ideologies. Redistribution of land ownership is therefore a practical and pragmatic necessity, not a nice-to-have.

As food security for SA is paramount, what is wrong with the concept of taking fertile land away from an owner who has left it lying fallow, and giving it to someone willing to work it productively – a caveat being that only land can be expropriated? Any improvements must be recompensed at market value. However, I challenge Government to reconsider whether the Constitution really needs to be changed. As it stands, there is no prerequisite for a “willing buyer/willing seller” compact, so if it is “in the public interest”, a much smaller payment could be determined as being appropriate compensation, while leaving other important property rights intact. I believe there is still time to negotiate with the Government on a revised implementation of land redistribution and, as the saying goes, “a smaller percentage of something is a whole lot better than 100% of nothing”.

In other areas of concern, Jacob Zuma’s reckless announcement of free tertiary education has forced the government into putting the cart before the horse. Even more funding must now also be found to improve primary and secondary education, both being currently in dire straits and a major contributor to the growing ranks of our people living in abject poverty. This leads to the National Health Insurance proposal.

In my opinion, the NHI scheme looks only to treat the symptoms of our healthcare crisis and not the fundamental cause. The problems with our public healthcare system stem not only from gross mismanagement of available resources, but also from a burgeoning demand for services caused by the abject poverty many of our people live in – dietary deficiencies, alcoholism, drug abuse, inadequate potable water and substandard sanitation, schoolgirl pregnancies, AIDS, tuberculosis, gang-related trauma – the distressing list goes on, and on. Regardless of country, or skin colour, the destitute are exponentially more prone to illness, and their life expectancy is significantly lower than their more affluent compatriots.  

medical aidWhile South Africa’s public-sector healthcare infrastructure most certainly needs to be upgraded, introducing an expensive mechanism such as the NHI scheme to treat only the consequences of poverty, is unsustainable. More money must be allocated to programmes tasked with eradicating poverty and uplifting living conditions of the poor. This leads to the social “coalface” of Provincial and Local Governance.

One of the most promising statements Ramaphosa made in SONA 2018 was: “It is critical that the structure and size of the State is optimally suited to meet the needs of the people and ensure the most efficient allocation of public resources.” Many commentators have taken a narrow view that he is referring only to the size of the Cabinet, which mushroomed from 18 Ministerial portfolios in Nelson Mandela’s 1994 Cabinet, to Jacob Zuma’s 35 Ministerial and 37 Deputy Minister positions by 2017. But “…the structure and size of the State…”  in my interpretation includes Provincial and Local Government, which opens up some very interesting possibilities.

I don’t have too much to say about Provincial governance except that in most provinces it is totally corrupt and completely ineffectual. Some provinces, Gauteng being a prime example with the Life Esidimeni debacle, are demonstrably not “… optimally suited to meet the needs of the people and ensure the most efficient allocation of public resources…” A clear-out at National Government level will address top-tier corruption, and when that is done, which shouldn’t take too long, second tier Provincial corruption can be tackled also quite quickly and effectively, through a process of restructuring.

National Assembly of South Africa.

However, the real coalface of service delivery and social development resides at Local Government level, and this is where I have long believed the axe needs to be wielded with a vengeance. We have 400 Members of Parliament tasked with debating the affairs of our nation of 57 million people, yet apparently 231 Councillors are required to mess up the water supply for a population of under 4 million people in Cape Town. A council that is almost 58% of the size of the National Assembly to debate the affairs of under 7% of the country’s population, and gets it completely wrong to boot – does that make sense to anyone other than a politician? This disgraceful surfeit of politicians occurs throughout all municipalities, from the largest Metro to the smallest Local Municipality. For far too long, we have been footing the bill for many pointless political party cadres who are there just to nod along with the chief whip. While there is much talk of introducing constituency accountability into the National elections process which I fully support, our Local Government electoral system also needs to be changed, not only to reduce the number of unnecessary politicians feeding from the public purse, but to also bring accountability back to the electorate. Halving the number of councillors will not affect the governance capacity of municipalities, but will have the major benefit of releasing approximately R2bn more for social development projects.

For the first time in many years there is a mood of good will and optimism in South Africa that I share, but good will and optimism alone are not enough. We must follow up with actions that streamline all levels of governance and accelerate developmental programmes.

There is a huge amount of work to do, and right now there are a lot of people looking to tackle South Africa’s problems from the top down. So, my offer to President Ramaphosa is, if you also want someone to tackle governance issues from the bottom up, then Send Me.