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Interview starts at 8:39 mark
JEREMY MAGGS: One of the key issues to emerge from the mini budget was the size of government. So here’s the question, how might the government’s plans to review and streamline government departments, entities, and programmes help matters any?
For an answer to that, let’s turn to TK Pooe, who is public policy specialist from the Wits School of Governance. TK, streamlining of government departments, if I recall, was announced at the State of the Nation Address [Sona] in February this year. That was eight months ago and nothing’s happened.
TK POOE: Yes, in fact, you can actually go back further to that. If you remember the start of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s official term, one of the things he said is that we want to actually cut down on a lot of the current structures, and we really haven’t seen it.
I’d even go back all the way to 2003, there was a document termed, The Machinery of Government, where government itself already in 2003 said we need a more coherent structure, especially at cabinet level, including things like SOEs [state-owned enterprises]. But it’s something which is said but hardly ever implemented and done.
JEREMY MAGGS: So how do you begin the process then?
TK POOE: I’d look at it in two ways, and I think we’ve spoken previously to this, that if you really do want to make something major in restructuring, I think our cabinet only really needs 18.
I’m working on a project at the moment, time willing, where there the optimum number for a country like South Africa and the size of government, we actually only need a cabinet of 18 people and that’s actually the easy part to do.
You’re starting to see it a bit in terms of SOEs where there’s talk that the Department of Public Enterprises [DPE] is going to be turned into a holding company. That’s a start but I think they could still do more and really put the number to 18.
But if you really speak about something impactful where we can really have some wiggle room fiscally, we really do need to revisit the idea of provinces in South Africa. If I remember correctly, if you look at the presentation, not so much the speech that the Minister of Finance [Enoch Godongwana] gave, page 12 or 18, they do speak to the fact that one of the biggest drivers of this growth is going to be provincial governments and the like.
I think we really do need to come to an honest assessment to say we don’t need provinces as a country constituted. If anything, we need reinvestment into local government and that I think would really give us the space to almost get government to work better.
JEREMY MAGGS: So reducing the number of provinces from nine to the original pre-apartheid four?
I’d go a step further; I’d say we don’t really need provinces at all. I think what you really need is a local government.
You can have a purely technocratic-driven administrative interface, which really would require, I’d say less than 50 people just to double-check on issues such as whether provinces and the like are being honest in their financial assessment because we do know when you give certain leeway to local government, especially financially, they tend to take the whole body.
So I think we do need a body like that that will really interact with national government. But I think if we really designed a national, my idea has always been that you need a portfolio which squarely looks at local government and within it really looks at things like finances and whether they actually adhere to certain things like that. You don’t really need a province for that or at all.
You just really need a competent and also almost future-oriented-looking national government that is able to say, listen, we already know what the problems are, South Africans don’t need to be told, we just really need to put the correct instruments in to check that on almost a month-to-month basis.
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JEREMY MAGGS: It’s a good argument, but it does make oversight a lot more difficult, and it’s predicated on having the right 50 people.
TK POOE: It does, and I think that’s where the conversation should be. I think we should never be shy to say I think we should demand better, to have a government that works better. I always use two examples; one is Singapore and [the other is] China. Obviously, the systems are a bit more complex, but if you look at the population size versus South Africa, we don’t want to have this honest conversation.
Part of it on our side is we think it’s a bit complicated and which gives government a lot of leeway to say, well, let’s try muddle around. But they don’t really get anywhere. But I think we do need to push back to say, we need this conversation, it’s long overdue and if other countries can make it work, why can’t we?
I always say it’s not that we don’t have the skill; we’ve got tons of skills in South Africa.
It’s the issue of let’s put political will and let’s put a plan in place that people can get behind and say, let’s really get this country really working because if we don’t and we have this conversation again, you and I, in the next two or three years, it’s going to be a bit too late from there.
JEREMY MAGGS: So if we focus on the provinces, where does this leave municipal government?
TK POOE: The arrangement I’m working on is to say that it actually strengthens them. If you look at a place Gauteng, I don’t think Gauteng needs all the municipalities that it currently has. If anything, Gauteng could only have three municipalities. So now the question will become, how many of these can be construed as metros and then I think you put a reinvestment back.
By reinvestment, it’s not just financial, it’s just about getting the right people. If you look at issues of getting the right type of funding into municipalities, a lot of time we don’t have the right people that understand business to actually be able to say, listen, let’s look at the CBD of Joburg, how do you retain the big companies there so that they can say I also want to invest into this.
How do we get the right foreign investment into those places because foreign investors and investors, they don’t invest in a country, they invest in a locality. So what’s been missing is sometimes they don’t have that interaction with the locality. I always make the arguments that we don’t put the right people that can actually understand and speak the language of these investors. So for me, that’s what I mean by reinvestment.
Local government should be propped up by having the right individuals within it.
Then the money we would’ve put into province, I think can then go into things like infrastructure, the really hard stuff that really makes an area and a location investor friendly.
So I think that’s how local government comes into my thinking.
JEREMY MAGGS: So just a quick answer in conclusion, when we hear words like review and streamline, are you suggesting that this is just hollow political rhetoric that we’ve heard before?
TK POOE: It’s code for ask me again next year, I’ll give you a different sounding, more fancier sounding English word after you’ve re-elected me, but I won’t give you anything in black and white.
JEREMY MAGGS: TK, we’ll book you for an interview this time next year, then we can have exactly the same conversation. Appreciate your time. Thanks very much indeed, TK Pooe from Wits University.