Why do governments pursue policies contrary to their own interests? That paradoxical question was at the heart of Barbara Tuchman’s 1984 popular history, The March of Folly.

In her panoptic sweep from the wooden horse at Troy to the quagmire of US folly in Vietnam, she noted: “Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity.” Nearly 40 years on, SA’s government could write modern postscripts to this work.

One of the reasons Tuchman cited for the persistence of folly – in the teeth of all evidence indicating a course correction – is that a monopoly on power and possession of the tools of command “frequently causes failure to think”. Those who persist in error are cited by her as “blockheads”.

This week provided new candidates for the blockhead award, both conferred by our courts. First, there was the victory of the Minerals Council in its successful review of the third version of the Mining Charter. One might have expected the government to pause for breath – given the jobs bloodbath and investment drought in the sector.

It did not, and doubled down on the bizarre requirement that racial empowerment obligations for mine owners are endless. Your empowerment partner can cash in their chips and the mine company must divest itself again of equity and find another dance partner – ad infinitum.

Rest assured, failure on this front will not deter minerals minister Gwede Mantashe. He will find another squeeze of the government’s number two enemy, business.

But another judgment this week was delivered against the government in its quest to square away public enemy number one: racial minorities.

The burden of the Tourism Relief Fund rules was not, on its face, to address hardship suffered during the pandemic by tourist businesses. That was subordinated to the racial preferencing which insisted that BEE certification be applied to the award of relief grants.

The Supreme Court of Appeal sent the minister packing, noting that the power given for “a specific purpose” (disaster relief) cannot be used to secure an “ulterior purpose” (race-coded preferences).

It is worth asking, even if the government never does as it pursues blind alleys and dead ends in a declining economy, why the persistence with avoidable, even obvious, error is the hallmark of governance today. One answer given many years before Tuchman’s book was in an influential essay in 1953 by philosopher Isaiah Berlin. He wrote of the world of difference between hedgehogs and foxes: “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing”.

Blinkered by ideology and its prejudices, our government is one big hedgehog. Lacking the subtlety or imagination to alter course, it has elevated the moral wrongs of previous racial policies into new garbs ill-fitted for the bind SA finds itself in right now.

Just how much is changing was revealed by a raft of stark figures released recently.

Last week’s voter registration drive revealed one glaring truth, or perhaps two: a net 650,000 South Africans have disappeared from the voters’ roll, according to analyst Dawie Scholtz. The excess deaths from coronavirus and other mortalities are one cause and doubtless emigration is another.

The relatively low number of new registrations is another explanation: many South Africans have opted out of the system entirely, deciding that after 27 years, democracy does not deliver any change in their lives.

Cue another raft of dire statistics highlighted in the auditor-general’s July report on local government finances: only 25 of 257 municipalities achieved clean audits, R3.47bn was blown on “fruitless and wasteful expenditure” and R22bn on “unauthorised spending”.

Hidden behind these accounting phrases is the inability of corrupt or unqualified councillors and municipal managers to attend to their core function: looking after residents and improving their lives.

Little wonder then that the leader of the party primarily responsible for this disaster zone, ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa, was last weekend given such a rough ride in his own and the party’s heartland, Soweto.

Still, Ramaphosa will tomorrow, in Pretoria at his party manifesto launch, offer more promissory notes into the distant future – and switched-off voters know they are unlikely to be honoured.

He provided a dress rehearsal in his recent remarks to Cosatu: his pledge about criteria for “clean, efficient and service delivery-focused local government” was all phrased in the future tense. No admission on the cadres and core philosophies which have led to the sea of sleaze and state failure engulfing residents across most of SA.

Other than some party mumbo-jumbo about “self-correction” and “humbling ourselves before the people” there is no sign of a departure from the cardinal policies which landed the country and its local governments in the ditch: expect nothing in the manifesto about scrapping cadre deployment; nil on how to embrace the private sector with a bushel of investor-friendly carrots in place of the big sticks of BEE and tightened employment equity compliance prescriptions.

Such a shift would need a swap from ideology and racial accounting to the remark Tony Blair used to put to his ministers: “What matters is what works.” Little chance of that error-reversing statement appearing in the manifesto.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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