Religion & Liberty Online

South Africa and the Merit of Merit

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What happened to the early promise of liberal democracy and economic growth in South Africa? Marxism is what happened.

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In 1994 a momentous change unfolded at the southern tip of Africa as the oppressive regime of apartheid came to a peaceful end. The African National Congress (ANC) and its revered leader, Nelson Mandela, took the reins of power, and at first glance everything progressed perfectly—liberal democracy had won the day. By 1997 foreign direct investment (FDI) to South Africa had surged to comprise 2.3% of the GDP—South Africa was rising!

Fast-forward to 2023 and suddenly South Africa’s minister of electricity is warning that stage 8 load shedding is a possibility, meaning that South Africans can expect to be without electricity for up to 12 hours in a 24-hour cycle during the coming winter. How did it ever get this bad? The South African slump can only be understood if the ideology and vision of the ruling ANC, and the devastation that it has brought, is understood. The social constructs of representivity and patronage, both diametrically opposed to the traditional idea of merit and of the common good, were key instruments in the hands of the ANC—constructs that have of late become quite popular in developed countries, making the South African example all the more relevant.

By 1988 the world was by most accounts a changing place. In this fated year, the general secretary of the South African Communist Party, Joe Slovo, wrote a pamphlet entitled “The South African Working Class and the National Democratic Revolution”—a document that explains the author’s and the ANC’s vision for the coming new South Africa. On the second page of this 33-page pamphlet, Slovo writes:

We do not claim that we have a monopoly of wisdom. But, equipped with the theoretical tool of Marxism-Leninism and the inheritance of an unmatched wealth of revolutionary experience, it is not immodest for us to assert that our Party is uniquely qualified to help illuminate the correct analytical path.

At a first glance this paragraph seems beyond belief. All around him Marxism-Leninism was failing, nay, collapsing, but yet he who would soon be a key member of the negotiations for a new South Africa, he who would in 1994 become the first minister for housing under the Mandela administration, refused to accept that this system had failed. Slovo did write an article with the title “Has Socialism Failed?” in 1989, but here he simply blames Stalinism for the USSR’s failures, reiterating that socialism still maintained “its inherent moral superiority.”

Many in the West are surprised by the idea that the ANC was deeply entrenched in Marxism-Leninism. The pictures they had been shown were of a democracy; they had been told of a liberal constitution, one of the very best ever written, one that was ensuring that South Africa would prosper, that it would become a beacon of light for the rest of the world. What the world saw was, in the famous words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Rainbow Nation at peace with itself, but at home its policies were informed by what the ANC calls the National Democratic Revolution, or the NDR.

While the ANC’s initial opposition to semiautonomous provinces in 1993 might have been a warning sign to some, by 1995 South Africa opened an institution that seemingly confirmed parity with the West more than any others: its first McDonald’s. After the 1994 elections, loans from the IMF and World Bank flooded in, and FDI soared. Yet, while all this was going on, the ANC was pursuing policies of revolution, or “revolution from the top.” The Slovo pamphlet mentioned above closes with the words:

The winning of the objectives of the national democratic revolution will, in turn, lay the basis for a steady advance in the direction of deepening our national unity on all fronts—economic, political and cultural—and towards a socialist transformation.

André Duvenhage, a South African professor of political science, identifies three phases of this revolution, this NDR: gaining of political control, redistribution of production factors, and promotion of social equality[i].

The first phase sees the phenomenon of patronage imported into the governing apparatus. The ANC has done this by what it calls cadre deployment, defined as “the appointment by a government’s governing party of a loyalist to an institution, as a means of enhancing public reporting-lines and ensuring that the institution stays true to the mandate of the party.” Cadre deployment is then, essentially, the appointment of people who are first and foremost loyal to the party, a faction of the party, or a person. Critically, it is not the appointment of a government employee based upon the ability of said employee to complete the relevant tasks and assume the relevant responsibilities as set out in the description of this particular position. Such a consideration, which might be called merit, is the second consideration at best.

The second and third phases of the NDR see it expanded to the sphere of private business by means of representivity. Representivity is a measure of how well a deliberative decision-making process or body represents various constituent groups. This has been interpreted to mean that if a company of government, or any force of employees, is not composed of a percentage of persons from certain groups in similar relation to how society at large is comprised, it is not representative.

The most common global application has been that a body must be composed of equal parts male and female members, but in South Africa it has been primarily understood to mean that all organizations, both public and private, must strive toward a representivity of 80, 9, 9, 2— meaning 80% black, 9% white, 9% coloured, and 2% Indian. It should be stated that in the case of the South African government and its Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment laws of 2013, these formulas are the primary consideration for getting government contracts as well as in government departments. Without representivity, you need not apply.

While the topics of gender and racial representivity are hot at the moment and have caused many to lose jobs or friendships, what makes the South African example relevant to the rest of the broadly democratic world is the inherent and fundamental ideas that gave rise to it in the first place. These ideas, as it will be indicated, stand in contrast to merit, and in contrast to the recipe that has shaped much of the global economy as we know it.

Few authors have so sharply criticized the ANC over the past two decades as Koos Malan, a South African professor of jurisprudence. In his 2019 book, There Is No Supreme Constitution, Malan defines the role of government:

The responsibility of the government, consisting of the apparatus of public office-bearers of the polity, [is] to safeguard justice through governing in the interest of the whole of the polity (the public good); to exert legitimate force as prescribed by the applicable law when necessary in the event of unlawful conduct, and to fend off external threats.

Malan then presents the antithesis to this:

Power might be abused to the detriment of smaller or larger parts of the citizenry instead of serving the whole of the body politic.

The primary consideration of the government should, if this line is to be followed, be the common good, the bonum commone. That a government should act in this way is not a new idea. As James Madison writes in Federalist 10:

Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.

In the rest of this now famous piece of political philosophy, Madison explains that the causes of faction are normal because people differ, therefore what must be controlled are the effects. The point of contact to today’s topic is the idea that the public good may not be “disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties.”

While very clearly expressed, the idea that state appointments should be made primarily on merit and not primarily on loyalty or patronage is not original to Madison but can be seen at least as early as the 1760s in the civil reforms of Friedrich the Great of Prussia, who modernized that region to an extent that is difficult to overstate. These reforms, while new in practice, were based on ideas that were not new at all. The Western idea of merit goes back at least to Aristotle, who in his Politics (book III, chapters 11 and 12) founds what we would today call merit.

Since in every art and science the end aimed at is always good, so particularly in this, which is the most excellent of all, the founding of civil society, the good wherein aimed at is justice; for it is this which is for the benefit of all.

Later in this same line, Aristotle would famously state

With respect to musicians who play on the flute together, the best flute is not given to him who is of the best family, for he will play never the better for that, but the best instrument ought to be given to him who is the best artist.

When considered against this backdrop, any public service appointment that departs from primarily considering the question of merit is a distortion of what government is inherently supposed to do. Such an appointment departs from serving the public good. This includes the idea of cadre deployment and most definitely deployment as it is currently applied by the ANC and its cadre deployment committee.

Many voices, learned voices among them, are currently asking: Is merit really that important? What damage does it really do to negate it? Surely all political parties employ people who are broadly loyal—doesn’t representivity redress historic wrongs?

The answer to these and similar questions consists of at least two parts. The first is that a government position is fundamentally a job created out of necessity, a necessity that dictates its responsibilities. Considered with regards to the common good, the only or at least the first question must be whether the appointed applicant is better than all other comers at assuming the responsibilities that gave rise to this position.

The second part of the answer is that a government position is not a trophy that should be given as reward for loyalty or for struggle in the name of the party. Such a view of government—that it is a collection of resources from which party loyalists are to be rewarded—lies at the heart of a corruption culture, a culture that South Africa knows all too well.

Serving the whole means acting in the service of the common good, which entails appointing officials primarily based on their ability to take up and manage their public responsibilities. Any deviation from this principle must immediately concede that the common good in the simplest incarnation thereof was not served.

Given the current ideological climate, many are willing to concede that social justice or an attitude of redistribution was the primary consideration for some or all of its appointments, and while some members of society might temporarily accept or even encourage such behavior, the example of South Africa shows that a compromise in the case of merit is eventually followed by a downward ability to deliver basic services.

This essay was adapted from a lecture given at the Scruton V.P. café in Budapest on May 24, 2023.

Paul Maritz

Paul Maritz is a South African currently studying toward a Ph.D. in Europe. He is researching the omnipotence of equality as understood by Alexis de Tocqueville. His interests include political ideology and the history of political thought.