Tuesday’s Business Day newspaper had a tableau of front page stories which threaded together a useful guideline of the state we are in and, more precisely, the state of the state itself.

The Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) Commission is hunting down the blackness or otherwise of leading empowerment vehicles, which apparently, courtesy of the witch hunt, are “fighting for survival”.

Next there was finance minister Tito Mboweni’s Twitter meltdown about the future of SAA. His enquiry “what should we do with SAA” seemed a little arch after he had just stumped up more than R10bn of taxpayer cash to extend its life. And perhaps this enquiry was best addressed to his cabinet colleagues, not to his 960,000 Twitter followers. Though he is likely to receive more sympathy on publicly questioning the need for a state airline from them, rather than his statist cabinet colleagues.

Finally, still on the front-page shop of horrors, was the lamentable public health crisis in the Eastern Cape. In just the past three weeks, the coronavirus surge there has seen an 3,763% (yes, that is the figure) increase from 167 to 6,285 active cases. And when private health-care provider Netcare offered to enter a partnership with the province’s health department to deal with the crisis, there was no response and no agreement from the Eastern Cape to do so. The suspicion of the private sector, so absent in the neighbouring Western Cape, which successfully and early on in the pandemic had such agreements in place, is the likely explanation.

What is striking in this trifecta of misery is the absence of any response by any state authority to the article on Monday by editor of Business Day Lukanyo Mnyanda about the most pressing crisis of all and the reason the government is running on empty: he asked the essential question, after two more rating downgrades at the weekend: “How many wake-up calls does one need before the penny finally drops?” Or does government simply continue to pursue fantastical policies, internal party trench warfare and increase the R4-trillion state debt into the stratosphere?

Actually, it was Mboweni, pushing back against his detractors on social media with apparently more energy than he manages inside the cabinet, who also asked an essential question: “Why should a question on SAA get so many people hot under the collar? Come on, grow up!! This is not a Stalinist society. People must be free to express their democratic views. Me too!” he tweeted.

The finance minister generally asks the pertinent question even if he is unable to provide a compelling answer, let alone prevail in settling the debate.

But an answer is to be found to all these travails in new a book which has, on the face of it, nothing to do with SA. But when you delve into the pages of Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy — The Failure of Politics and the Fallout of Friends, it provides a perilous portrait of illiberal democracies, such as our own. And this acclaimed Polish-American historian illustrates, in answer to Mboweni, that it is actually a Leninist or Bolshevik lens, rather than the extremities of Stalinism, which captures the state of so many societies, including our own.

If this all sounds a little arcane and theoretical, bear in mind that even a multiparty democracy can have striking one-party characteristics. Her lament is about the decline of her native Poland from an acclaimed new democracy in 1990 (the same first year of SA’s transition to a state which has been captured by a narrow semi-authoritarian and nationalistic outlook), exemplified by its ruling Law and Justice Party. It holds vigorous elections, but the new hegemony, augmented by state control over the broadcaster, press and much of civil society, predetermines the results.

Consider her snapshot of how illiberal and authoritarian governing parties operate, even in notionally democratic settings:

“The Bolshevik one-party state was not merely undemocratic: it was anticompetitive and anti-meritocratic. Places in universities, civil service jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable: they went to the most loyal.”

(In a column last month, I illustrated how most of the chairpersonships of state companies here were occupied by recycled ANC politicians.)

She continues: “Individuals advanced not because of talent and industry, but because they were willing to conform to the rules of the party. Though these rules were different at different times, they were consistent in certain ways. They usually excluded the former ruling elite and their children, as well as suspicious ethnic groups … ”

Her description of Poland today is a facsimile for SA, except our process predates theirs by decades (in 1996, for example, we removed the merit criteria for public service appointments).

“Not only did Law and Justice (the Polish ruling party) change the civil service law, making it easier to fire professionals and hire party hacks, it also fired the heads of Polish state companies. People with experience running large companies were replaced by party members and their friends and relatives.”

So the next time you think it odd that in an ostensible constitutional democracy such as SA the members of the governing party reference each other as “comrade”, or in the face of the gigantic state failure and crushing debt government persists with the Bolshevik concept of “cadre deployment”, know it is a very accurate shorthand. And the paving stones for the road to continued state failure and country misery.

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

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