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Posts Tagged ‘politics

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

DAgang: A very short engagement

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No laughing matter: Mamphela Ramphele and Helen Zille in good times. Photo by: Mike Hutchings

No laughing matter: Mamphela Ramphele and Helen Zille in good times. Photo by: Mike Hutchings

The Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s largest opposition party, announced last night that Mamphela Ramphele will not be the party’s presidential candidate in the national election. Only a week ago, Ramphele hailed her offer as the DA’s presidential candidate and acceptance of it as “another astonishing moment in what we offer the people of South Africa, and once again the world”. Not so. The media statement released last night states Ramphele “reneged on the agreement that she stand as the DA’s Presidential Candidate, and that Agang SA’s branches, members and volunteers be incorporated into the DA. … The DA negotiated with Dr Ramphele in good faith. Indeed she is a long-time personal friend of mine and I sought to bring her into politics over many years.  We have been through many false starts, but when Dr Ramphele insisted on Monday that we go public on Tuesday to announce her acceptance of our offer of the DA’s presidential candidacy, we accepted that she had finally made up her mind.By going back on the deal, again, just five days after it was announced, Dr Ramphele has demonstrated – once and for all – that she cannot be trusted to see any project through to its conclusion. This is a great pity.”

Perhaps the backlash from her own supporters is what caused Ramphele to renege on her agreement. When she created Agang, her party, early last year, she was adamant that the DA was not the solution to South Africa’s socio-economic problems:

As I met with young people I heard a refrain: we want to take up the challenge confronting us, we want to be more active and engaged but we do not have the platform. We will not vote for the ANC because of their corrupt, autocratic ways, nor will we vote for the DA because we know they do not understand the transformational challenges facing the country.With these comments foremost in my mind I went back to the DA. I did not believe that the English-speaking white supporters of the DA understood the inequities visited on the majority in the country and the consequences of their perpetuation for the quality of our democracy.Some, including Hlumelo [Biko, Ramphele’s son], would argue that the political settlement of 1993 allowed white privilege to remain unchallenged. Hlumelo calls it the ‘Great Fraud’ that let white people escape redressing the socio-economic consequences of apartheid. I felt the DA was complacent, trapped in their inability to realise that poverty could be eradicated.Eventually my discussions with the DA reached a point where we agreed on the principles: most importantly, that the economy needed to be restructured. We agreed we needed to work together.

The DA was an established machine but it needed to be repositioned. And repositioning meant more than rebranding the DA. This problem would not be solved by my presence as leader of that party. My presence would not obliterate the misgivings of the majority of black people.

Take Malusi [Magele, Ramphele’s son] as an example. He grew up playing with Helen Zille’s children. He was always welcome in their household. He did not doubt for a moment that Helen Zille was committed to a better South Africa. Yet he told me that he would rather die than vote DA.

How often would this sentiment not be repeated across the country? So what would be achieved by my joining the DA or even joining a rebranded DA? Nothing.

It is difficult to understand why these sentiments would change so suddenly. More will surely become clearer as the election battle heats up. What is clear is that it is Helen Zille that will suffer the most from Ramphele’s about-turn. It is already forgotten that it was Zille’s position to give – that she voluntarily offered her own position to Ramphele in an attempt to improve her party’s chances at the ballot box. Now she has to front up to questions of window-dressing – the ANC called it ‘rent-a-black’ – and the unhappiness within her party at the abuse of power, however benevolent. On paper her decision was plausible: Ramphele has the CV of a presidential candidate; compare, for example, hers with our incumbent president Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, leader of the EFF. Yet what Zille failed to see, perhaps clouded by the bonds of friendship, is that Ramphele lacked the political nous that Zuma and Malema have in abundance.

Zille made the mistake of equating friendship with good politics. Perhaps her ambition to affect change was too strong; her patience at the slow political change in South Africa since 1994 had finally waned. Perhaps she thought that, when ANC opinion (especially of its leader) is at an all-time low, there was a chance, however small, that a large minority for the opposition will force the incumbent party’s hand. Instead, she overplayed her own, and her miscalculation has put the DA back another four years.

But the larger lesson should not go unnoticed. What Zuma and Malema understand is that it is impossible to ‘restructure’ the economy, for good or bad, without political power. We still have little idea what ‘restructuring’ means to Ramphele and her followers: Agang has been extremely vague in proposing economic policies. Yet for all her good intentions, by reneging on her candidacy, Ramphele has failed not only in her own attempts at transforming the economy – a transformation that, given her experience, would likely have boosted South Africa’s tiring economy – but she has dealt a huge blow to the Democratic Alliance’s aspirations to do so too. #DividedForChange has never been a sexy slogan, nor a successful one.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 3, 2014 at 06:31

Why apartheid ended

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There is no consensus about the reasons for the demise of South Africa’s political system of apartheid. Was it the domestic unrest and political awakening of black South Africans that forced the White government to turn to the negotiating table or face civil war? Was it the magmanimous leadership of FW de Klerk or the reconciliatory courage of Nelson Mandela that allowed a peaceful transition? Or was it economics: changing internal and external resource allocations that by the end of the 1980s made apartheid non-viable even for the whites which were the supposed beneficiaries?

This is a question raised in Hlumelo Biko’s new book, The Great African Society. Biko argues that “global discomfort with the apartheid government’s modus operandi ultimately contributed significantly to the undoing of the apartheid regime” (p. 4), assigning an important role for the international community – and sanctions – in raising the costs of apartheid and increasing the likelihood of capitulation. But Biko’s view is challenged by an earlier literature. Already in 1997, Anton Lowenburg, Professor of Economics at California State University, published a paper in Contemporary Economic Policy which argued that “the direction of causality between sanctions and economic damage might have been quite the reverse of that normally supposed”. He provides evidence which shows that sanctions followed internal events, such as the 1973 strikes and Soweto riot, rather than causing those events. He argues that instead of forcing the government to the negotiating table, sanctions may have resulted in a conservative backlash from white South Africans, contributing to the continuation of the regime. Think of the impact of sanctions on Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, for example, or North Korea.


A different economic explanation is found in Martine Mariotti’s recent paper on “Labour markets during apartheid in South Africa“, published in the Economic History Review. Mariotti argues that white skills improved significantly during apartheid (due to the emphasis on education), reducing the number of semi-skilled white workers and increasing the number of skilled white workers. Apartheid also coincided with a large increase in the manufacturing and services sectors, where skilled and semi-skilled labour was required. Thus, instead of white labourers competing with black labourers (as was the case during the early part of the twentieth century and the reason for the imposition of the colour bar), white labour and black labour was now complementary. White skilled labourers and the white owners of capital needed to fill semi-skilled positions with black workers, which is why the apartheid government in 1979 followed the recommendations of the Wiehahn Commission to abolish all forms of statutory job reservation. Apartheid, of course, would still continue for another 15 years, which suggests that economic forces don’t immediately trump racial ideology. But the shifts in the labour market, changing the economic incentives for white labourers, put the apartheid policies on an inevitable road to failure.

There were likely other economic causes as well: the high costs of industrial decentralisation, the use of import-substitution policies during apartheid that left huge current account deficits, industrial policy that attempted to pre-empt the impact of sanctions (like building SASOL), and the high security and military costs. The extent to which these policies mattered is still open for debate.

Understanding the reasons for apartheid’s failure is today, 19 years after its end, still important. Says Biko (p. 4): “To date the focus has been on a diagnosis of the racial symptoms of apartheid, resulting in a weak prescription of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with a narrow mandate focused on racist-motivated crimes against humanity, and prescribing a cocktail of Black Economic Empowerment and affirmative procurement (policies) as a remedy for South Africa’s economic ills. If the desired outcome behind BEE as a policy was broad-based economic empowerment of previously disadvantaged South Africans, then so far it has failed”. If we are to address the legacies of apartheid that still persist – and Biko makes a number of radical suggestions, which is a discussion for another day – it is essential to gain consensus on the economic causes for the fall of the apartheid regime.

*From 20-22 March, Economic Research Southern Africa will host a workshop on the Economics of Apartheid in Cape Town. Several South African economic historians, including Martine Mariotti (mentioned above), will present papers. Send me a mail for more information.

Written by Johan Fourie

March 15, 2013 at 17:43