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Posts Tagged ‘parliament

How to get good politicians

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South African President Jacob Zuma visit Berlin

Politicians can shape the fortunes of countries. Presidents, in particular, set the tone: balancing many stakeholder interests, their job is to create a unifying vision that should guide policy-making. Members of parliament act upon this vision, designing and implementing policies that affect the lives of millions of people. One would imagine, then, that those with the best aptitude for leadership get elected.

That is the theory. But in practice politics is a messy business. For many reasons, it is often not the smartest candidate who gets elected, or the most effective member who gets selected for higher honours. Some economic models even explain why it is not the most capable that move up: Someone without a proper education (but a charismatic personality) has a much higher chance to see greater returns in politics than in the private sector. (In technical terms, lower opportunity costs give the less able a comparative advantage at entering public life.) These selection effects are compounded by the free-rider problem in politics, where work effort is not directly correlated to political outcomes. In other words, according to this model, it is society’s ‘chancers’ that are more likely to end up in politics – and the hard-working, smart ones will tend to end up in the private sector.

Competency in public office is, of course, is not the only goal of a parliamentary system. Representation – having politicians that reflect the demographic and geographic make-up of society-at-large – is also a key concern. But competency and representation, at least theoretically, do not always correlate. Take the following example: a proportional representation system, like we have in South Africa, would require members of all districts to be represented. But what if one region – let’s call it Farmville – has few university-trained citizens, whereas another region – Science City – has many citizens with university degrees? A proportional representation system will necessitate some Farmville politicians also be elected to parliament, even though the Science City politicians will probably be best qualified for the job. In contrast, in a plurality rule system – where the candidate with the most votes gets the job – competency often trumps representation.

A new NBER Working paper – Who Becomes a Politician? – by five Swedish social scientists, casts doubt on this trade-off. Using an extraordinarily rich dataset on the social background and competence levels of Swedish politicians and the general public, they show that an ‘inclusive meritocracy’ is an achievable goal, i.e. a society where competency and representation correlate in public office. They find that Swedish politicians are, on average, significantly smarter and better leaders than the population they represent. This, they find, is not because Swedish politicians are only drawn from the elite of society; in fact, the representation of politicians in Swedish municipalities, as measured by parental income or occupational class, is remarkably even. They conclude that there is at best a weak trade-off between competency and representation, mostly because there is ‘strong positive selection of politicians of low (parental) socioeconomic status.

These results are valid for Sweden, of course, which is a country unlike South Africa. Yet there are lessons that we can learn. First, what seems to matter is a combination of ‘well-paid full-time positions and a strong intrinsic motivation to serve in uncompensated ones’. In other words, a political party in South Africa that rewards hard work for those who serve in uncompensated positions, are likely to see the best leaders rise to the top, where they should be rewarded with market-related salaries. Second, an electoral system which allows parties to ‘represent various segments of society’. Political competition is good. Third, the ‘availability of talent across social classes’. This, they argue, is perhaps unique to Sweden, known for its universal high-quality education.

This reminded me of our State of the Nation red carpet event, where the cameras fixated on the gowns and glamour of South Africa’s political elite. How do the levels of competency in our parliament, I wondered, compare to Sweden and other countries?

Let’s just look at the top of the pyramid. The president of Brazil, Michel Temer, completed a doctorate in public law in 1974. He has published four major books in constitutional law. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, also has a PhD in Law, although his initial field of study was chemical engineering. Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, has a Master’s degree in Political Science. Former US president Barack Obama graduated with a Doctor of Jurisprudence-degree magna cum laude from Harvard University. Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, has a PhD in quantum chemistry. Most of these widely respected leaders gave up a top job in the private sector or academe to pursue a political career.

Politics is messy, but given the right conditions, it can still attract high-quality leaders. For that to happen, though, aspiring politicians must put in the hard yards, even if initially uncompensated, supported by a competitive political party system and broad access to quality education. South Africa, unfortunately, is still a long way from meeting these criteria.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 9 March.

Written by Johan Fourie

March 24, 2017 at 07:35

Forget the SONA embarrassment. This is how we change our future.

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lighttunnelWhat South Africans learned last night – if we did not already know it – is that if we are to make progress as a country, it will happen despite and not because of our politicians. Everyone lost in last night’s State of the Nation embarrassment: the EFF who, after chasing around one of their own MPs in the streets of Cape Town, interrupted the president repeatedly during his State of the Nation Address; the Speaker, who ordered armed police to forcibly remove the boisterous EFF members; and ANC MPs, for cheering on while EFF members were assaulted. And I haven’t even mentioned the jamming device used to scramble all cellular networks (shut down only after journalists and opposition MPs insisted that it be turned off). Or the fact that DA members marching outside were hosed down by riot police, and some arrested. The solemn figures of Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk in the parliamentary gallery depicted perfectly how far our country’s leadership has fallen.

But perhaps, in search of our dark cloud’s silver lining, what happened in parliament yesterday, although a reflection of the state of the nation, is not a reflection of the future of the nation. Another South African made news yesterday, news that will affect countless more lives (even South African ones) than what our president did or could say in a State of the Nation address. Instead of focusing on the sorry figure of Zuma, perhaps we should pay more attention to the ideas and plans of our greatest export in recent years: Elon Musk, founder and owner of Tesla and SpaceX, who is, incredibly, still only 41 years old. Musk announced on Wednesday that Tesla is planning to unveil a new lithium-ion battery pack that homeowners could buy to store and supply their own energy. Here’s Time Magazine:

Details on the batteries were sparse, but an obvious use would be placing them in homes equipped with solar panels to store excess energy. Solar energy company SolarCity already offers Tesla battery packs in some markets that customers can use to store energy and use as a kind of emergency generator. Musk is the chairman of SolarCity and its largest shareholder.

In addition to selling to residential customers, Tesla could also sell batteries to utilities trying to increase energy efficiency.

A shortage of electricity is arguably South Africa’s most immediate constraint: South Africa is producing less electricity than it did twenty years ago, owing to a lack of investment in new power plants and maintenance on existing ones. It is embarrassing to explain to my international visitors that, yes, we have a schedule about when power cuts will occur. Load shedding is killing investment, growth and jobs. Zuma acknowledged as much: “The country is currently experiencing serious energy constraints which are an impediment to economic growth and is a major inconvenience to everyone in the country”. He outlined short, medium and long-term responses, none new. According to most experts, we can expect load shedding for most of 2015 and well into 2016.

That is, if we trust government to deliver on its promises. We shouldn’t. Last night showed us that the best we can hope for is a government that does little harm. Don’t expect that any time soon, though. Instead, we should trust those people who have an incentive to get things right: if they do, and we begin to use batteries in our homes like we use toasters, they win fame and fortune. Musk will become an even richer genius. Politicians, in contrast, have none of those incentives. The way they make money is to skim the cream off a big tender. Delays mean larger contracts and more to skim off. There is nothing in politics that incentivize leaders to be efficient.

Entrepreneurs are different. They must innovate, improve, and deliver to satisfy the demands of millions of consumers. The better they do this, the more money they make. And this innovation improves the planet, too. Battery-powered homes (and cars and offices) will allow us to make better use of renewable energies, especially in a sunny and windy South Africa. It will allow us to connect the 3.5 million people that still don’t have access to electricity. (Consider the impact cell phone technology on African living standards.) And it will allow us to escape the inefficiencies of badly-run state monopolies. #powertothepeople #inmuskwetrust

Better politicians are not the answer to South Africa’s woes. Better entrepreneurs are. For South Africans, the light at the end of Eskom’s dark tunnel is a fast-approaching train. For Musk, it’s an entirely new world.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 13, 2015 at 10:28

The dangerous nationalism of Julius Malema

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No laughing matter: nationalism is a dangerous game Photo: Refilwe Modise

No laughing matter: Nationalism is a dangerous game. Photo: Refilwe Modise (The Citizen)

It’s ironic that Julius Malema, in his first speech in parliament yesterday, would reference Louis Botha, the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. Here is what Mr Malema had to say about Botha:

This elite pact is reflected by the fact that the most prominent statue in this Parliament, is a statue of Louis Botha, and the one of Nelson Mandela is very small and is hidden behind the statue of Louis Botha. Louis Botha is not our Hero and cannot be a Hero of a democratic South Africa. He is a colonial warmonger, who fought for the exclusion of black and indigenous people from running their own country and affairs. Its people like this who made white South Africans think they are superior and if we continue celebrating them, we are equally perpetuating white supremacy. The statue of Botha outside this Parliament must go down, because it represents nothing of what a democratic South Africa stands for.

That statue represents backwardness and apartheid and therefore it belongs to the dustbin of history and to be replaced with a bigger statue of seaparankwe Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela. We will never have true friendship and peace if white minority still behaves like they are superior and we should remain inferior in our country. All black people continue to learn the languages of white minorities as part of our attempt to reach out to them and create friendship but with very little attempt from their side to at least learn one of our African languages because they have a wrong mentality that we must suck up to them.

These are some of the legacies people like Louis Botha have left us and it must be crushed,we must not celebrate anything that perpetuates white supremacy. As part of nation building maybe we need to harsh steps by not celebrating any white person who doesn’t at least know or make an effort to at least know one of our African languages because by not knowing our languages or our culture they are effectively perpetuating the stereotypes of white supremacy. If you have a white friend as black person and he/she doesn’t know your language or not taking initiative to learn your language that person is no friend at all.

Perhaps it would surprise Mr Malema to know that, almost exactly a century ago, one of the big debates in our country was about what it is to be South African. The Second South Africa War at the start of the century, which saw the savagery of concentration camps and scorched-earth tactics, was still fresh in the minds of South Africans. One political group, lead by Louis Botha and Jan Smuts under the banner of the South African Party, claimed that the two white races – as the Afrikaners and British were generally referred to – should reconcile and build a unified country. Their definition of South African was ‘inclusive’, at least in terms of their world view: it included whites from opposing sides of the War and, in the Cape, Coloured South Africans. (Because of the pseudo-science of race hierarchies at the start of the twentieth century, blacks, in South Africa, elsewhere in Africa, and in the Americas, were not allowed to vote.)

In contrast to this message of unification, a small group of Afrikaans-speaking whites began to assert that the only ‘true’ South Africans were those that distanced themselves from the British Empire, that wanted to see a South Africa independent from the British throne. These ‘true’ South Africans also had to have another trait: they could speak the emerging language of the locals that we would later call Afrikaans. Only by speaking Afrikaans did one show true loyalty to the country. The National Party would emerge from this second grouping, and even though their leader, JBM Hertzog, also favoured the more inclusive definition of what it is to be South African, the nationalist tendencies would finally win out, with the formation of the ‘Purified’ National Party, which, as we all now, gave us the policy of apartheid. Nationalism, in this case white nationalism, would have devastating consequences for the country. It is difficult not to draw historical parallels: a message of unification after an intense period of racial confrontation (the 1910s/1990s). The rise of organised labour against monopoly capital (1920s/2000s). The impetus to solve the social and economic difficulties of a depression (1930s/2010s). A rise of nationalism and the defeat of the moderates (the 1940s/2020s?). And then?

Just as the message of the white nationalists appealed to white voters in the 1940s, there is a reason Mr Malema’s message appeals to black voters. There is a common enemy (for Afrikaner nationalists, it was the British Empire, and when that turned out to not be scary enough, black South Africans; for Mr Malema and his nationalists, it is arguably white South Africans). And there is economic disenfranchisement (for Afrikaner nationalists, it was the ‘poor white problem’; for Malema, it is inequality). Much like the nationalist leaders of African countries that gained their independence in the 1950s and 1960s, Malema speaks directly to the hopes and aspirations of millions of people frustrated by the current economic stagnation. Even his speech is clothed in the same rhetoric. Here is Mr Malema last night: We “acknowledge and greet the millions of South African workers, the poor, and downtrodden and dejected masses of our people”. Here is Kwame Krumah, elected as the first president of an independent Ghana in March 1957: I am the “Hope of Millions of down-trodden Blacks, Deliverer of Ghana, Iron Boy, Great Leader of Street Boys”. Idi Amin called himself the “Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”, Malema calls for the “political, social and economical (sic) liberation of blacks in general and Africans in particular”. Yet both Kwame Krumah and Idi Amin caused tremendous hurt to their economies. Krumah nationalised key industries. He heavily taxed (black) export farmers. His idea of African socialism failed to deliver his followers from the perils of poverty. Ghana is now, with a working democracy and market reforms, finally realising its potential, the black star of Africa. Amin, in his attempt to rid Uganda of the ‘external forces’ (sound familiar?), expropriated land and assets from all whites and Asians, and forced them to leave the country. The economy collapsed and Uganda, one of the most beautiful countries on earth, has never really recovered.

There is a reason the statues of Louis Botha and Nelson Mandela stand outside our parliament. Both men fought for the reconciliation of different race groups. Both wanted South Africa to participate in the global economy. Both believed that education is the key to a better life for all. That should be enough reason to keep them in their place. But there is another reason for those statues: it is that we should learn from history never to open our society to the poison that is nationalism. Perhaps that is why Mr Malema wants us to forget the past.

Written by Johan Fourie

June 19, 2014 at 09:10