Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Response to the “turncoat” Botsalo Ntuane on the welfare state

Recently, as I was perusing through press statements made by Botswana’s politicians on the subjects of the economy and education, I was struck by an opinion piece in which the Honourable Botsalo Ntuane laments the fall of what he terms former President Masire’s welfare state.

I could not reconcile this statement with the one made in 2005 about the passing phase of Botswana’s welfare state. Then, Ntuane justified this development with the usual neo-liberal rhetoric of pressing demands on the state that made this change inevitable. The title of his opinion piece then was “The Honeymoon is over” (Monitor, 12 October 2005). I am referring to this article, published about two years ago, to reflect the confusion that reigns in the minds of our politicians but also to project how politicians thrive on the uninformed general public. Part of my reaction to Honourable Ntuane’s articles also seeks to question some of the misleading statements he makes about the concept of a welfare state.

Lately, in Botswana’s legislature, given the void created by a weak opposition in parliament, there has emerged a new voice of dissenting BDP backbenchers. Botsalo Ntuane belongs to this crop of MPs.

There are some who naively assert that this development augurs well for our democracy as the group may provide a check on the Executive, given the opposition that is in the sick bay. This is misplaced optimism because within the ruling party such dissent is barely informed by principle.
When Duke Lefhoko differs with Merafhe over the conduct of elections in Zimbabwe or Keletso Rakhudu and others rally behind a motion to temporarily halt the illegal privatisation of Air Botswana, in principle they are not opposed to privatisation.

Similarly when the same MPs attempt to block Cabinet in its swift Mafia style of enacting the Intelligence Bill, it is not out of any principle.
They are not against the encroachment of the state on the nation’s civil liberties or the entrenchment of powers to one individual in the name of the President.

They would blindly defend the same government if one was to raise issues relating to the country’s over-Presidentialism where he is virtually transformed into a 19th century southern African feudal monarch.
The point I’m making is that this is the usual bubble and burst that characterise dissension in the BDP.

As it can be seen in the way Kedikilwe and others behaved in relation to the Security Bill. Once they were elevated to Cabinet, their position changed. The same can be said about Honourable Mfa and his view on perceived Khama’s dictatorial streak. He is now the famous praise poet of the leadership.
Further, after raising so much dust about irregularities at the Department of Student Placement and Welfare, he backed off and refused to appear before the commission established to investigate these irregularities.

A similar behavioural pattern was observed in Kwelagobe in relation to the past election of the BDP party chairpersonship. His last minute change of sides did clearly show his support for Kedikilwe was not driven by any principle, but survival and lust for position. This is how we must see the present crop of so called independent minded backbenchers. Their dissension is primarily defined by their backbench position and not principle. Elevate them to the front bench and all that will simply fizzle out. It is also within this context that I want to place Ntuane’s writings on his so called demise of Masire’s welfare state.

Although Ntuane has that so called independent mind, it is also accompanied by an attempt to play a court jester; to please his masters.
Quite often when he makes some of these statements I picture a Shakespearean character called Malvolio. Molvolio, in his effort to impress as a suitor, would put on the most outrageous attire that least impressed those it was supposed to appeal to.

Ntuane, in his bid to impress his superiors, literally caricatures himself with contradictory and inconsistent statements. In 2005, when the government reintroduced school fees in the name of cost-sharing, Ntuane, writing from a typical neo-liberal premise defended this development. He argued, like his superiors in the BDP, that Batswana must shed the entitlement skin as “the honeymoon” of free education was over.

To him, the provision of a social service like education by the state reflected a honeymoon for the public.

Then Ntuane argued that “the honeymoon is finally over and each and every citizen must lift themselves up by their bootstraps and get on with the business of self-sustenance rather than depend on the state” (The Monitor,12 October 2005). Underline depends on the state. Surprisingly, in the same article, Ntuane had provided statistics to illustrate how free basic education widens participation and widens the net of equality of educational opportunity. He had to justify this development to please his superiors. In his latest article, in a bid to eulogise his mentor, whom he credits for having crafted the Botswana welfare state he now projects himself as someone who laments the attack on this model of the state. He argues there is an emerging discourse in which the welfare state is projected as costly and encouraging dependency in which handouts are doled out to citizens. “As a beneficiary of the welfare state I would be doing myself injustice if I supported a narrative that seeks to deny others the benefits that I enjoyed” (Monitor, 28 May 2007). Yet in 2005, the same man argued that such a state was not sustainable in the long term. Talk about double speak!

Ntuane also gives us a very simplistic view of the welfare state.

The welfare state is a social contract between labour and capital.

It also reflects how the capitalist system manages crisis and has little or nothing to do with humanitarianism or ethical considerations as Ntuane asserts.

The origins of this state can be found in the institutional reorganisation of capitalism in the post-War period in Europe, especially in social democracies of Scandinavia, in particular, Sweden’s social democracy. Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Deal” also falls within this category. The “New deal” was a product of managing the crisis of US capitalism. This was the reconstruction of the post-Depression period in the US in which there was a “social pact” and policy coordination between labour and employers. It represents a type of government in which citizens can look up to the state for minimum levels of social welfare such as education, health, social security, employment and housing.
Another feature of this model is that it operates under the assumption of full employment following the economic models of Keynesian economics.
Although the mining boom of the 1980s facilitated substantial state investment in social services and infrastructure in Botswana, the Botswana state was never a welfare state in the true semblance of the model.

There was no guarantee of full employment for labour as the state did not provide unemployment security.

In fact, whenever the BNF MPs raised this issue, they were told to “best consult Lobatse Mental Hospital” as they seemed to live in utopia. Even the meagre old age pension that can barely sustain anyone was conceived following a spirited campaign by progressive forces. In a peripheral state like Botswana, the introduction of schemes like FAP, ARAP, ALDEP, SLOCA, free health and education, were part of a distribution of a social wage through which the state legitimates itself and integrates the population into its capitalist ideology and balances demands of the subordinate classes and other social groups with the need to facilitate private accumulation.

In fact schemes like FAP and the National Development Bank were a lever for accumulation for the ruling block and other fractions of the bourgeoisie. Some writers point out that medium scale and large scale FAP grants went to either foreigners or non-indigenous citizens. On the other hand, NDB lending largely went to borehole drilling and other cattle baron related agricultural activities. As for other agricultural grants, more than anything else, they contributed to environmental degradation.

As a beneficiary of such a model, Ntuane decries the fall of his Botswana’s welfare state.
Yet he does not offer any meaningful interpretation of this development. We need to contextualise this development in the global context. The recent language of cost saving, efficiency, privatisation, public private partnerships (PPPs), the sale of public enterprises, and consumer choices are the hallmark of NEO-LIBERALISM.

Neo-liberalism or the neo-liberal state denotes a new form of state that emerged more than three decades ago, partly in reaction to the capitalist induced oil crisis of the 1970s and the rise of neo-conservatism. It is closely linked to the rise of neoconservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major in England, Ronald Reagan in the United States, and Brian Mulroney in Canada. Thatcher’s forceful government programme that was characterised by an onslaught on trade unionism is at times dubbed Thatcherism while Reagan’s “conservative revolution” is Reaganomics.

Neo-Liberal governments promote the ideas of open markets, free trade, the reduction of the public sector, and the decrease of state intervention in the economy and the deregulation of markets.
Further neo-liberalism is also associated with structural adjustments programmes. Structural adjustments refer to programmes, policies and conditionalities recommended by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other arbiters of capital. What is sometimes termed the Brentwood institutions or the Washington consensus. Generally, these adjustments recommend the reduction of state spending, reduction of tariffs on imports, and an increase in public and private savings. A central feature of this model is the reduction of the state sector through privatisation of state enterprises, currency devaluations, the liberalisation of salaries and prices, and the reorientation of production towards export.
In neo-liberal ideology, the best state is the one with a lean government.

The restructuring of advanced capitalist states and structural adjustments fit well within the neo-liberal model. They also reiterate a reduction of public spending, sale of state enterprises, and mechanisms of deregulation to avoid state intervention in business. Further, it is proposed that the state should participate less in social services (education, health, pensions and retirement, public transport and housing) and that these services should be privatised. The notion of ‘private’ is eulogised. What is private is good and what is public is bad. It is couched in the language of efficiency; efficiency of competition. The public sector is said to be inefficient, wasteful socially. In contrast, the private sector is assumed to be efficient, effective, responsive, productive, because it is free from bureaucracy, flexible and adaptable to changes in the modern world. Thus, unlike the welfare state which had a social contract with labour, the neo-liberal state is pro business as signified by international agreements such as the GATTS.

These ideas of neo-liberalism are exported from the centre to the periphery of capitalism or from the North to the South through policy prescriptions of multilateral agencies above. In Latin America, the first neo-liberal model emerged in Chile following the US sponsored overthrow of a popularly elected government and assassination of President Salvador Allende. In Sub-Sahara Africa, the model was planted through structural adjustment programmes following the economic crisis of the 1980s. A good example is when Zambia sold all its copper mines for a song, now thriving in the hands of private capital as copper prices have improved due to the demand in places like China.

In the context of Botswana (and, to a large extent, South Africa), this process is self-imposed, simply because the Botswana government is outright neo-conservative as reflected by their position on issues like multiculturalism, indigenous rights, sexual orientation and reproductive rights, corporal punishment, capital punishment and the individualisation of failure or disadvantage etc. Part of the problem is also that the political leadership embraces globalisation, a process through which neoliberal discourses are exported to the periphery, uncritically. It is often presented as a marvel. At times when you hear a political speech on this subject, it sounds more like praise poetry.
When the Botswana government formally adopted a privatisation policy in 2000 and subsequently established PEEPA to roll out this process, that marked the emergence of neo-liberalism.

In 2005, PEEPA conceived a Privatisation Master Plan. Last year, it released a document outlining its plan for the rationalisation of public enterprises.
The privatisation of Air Botswana, the Botswana Telecommunications and other public companies is part of the neo-liberal package for the nation. All this is couched in the language of efficiency, cost effectiveness. The government also appointed a Business and Economic Advisory Council (BEAC) which also made its prescriptions. The most revealing aspect of the BEAC is that its head describes himself as “…a market economist who believes that the private sector should be given the platform to thrive.” He adds, “That, to me, can only be achieved by limiting the interference of government into each and every aspect of the economy…” (Botswana Guardian, 4-10 May 2007). The press also describe him as an ultra right “hard-core right wing economist”, or “an astute right wing economist”. A fitting description and self description of the head of the neo-liberal think tank, BEAC.

Its report, leaked to the press, echoes similar sentiments on privatisation, export orientation of production, user fees in education and harps on the need to move beyond the culture of entitlement.
These are sentiments that are persistently echoed in political speeches of the leadership. In the language of the President, people live beyond their means and relish luxuries. The Bank of Botswana 2006 report reiterates these sentiments. One need not be a genius economist to interpret what government’s obsession with the devaluation of the Pula in recent years means within the neo-liberal context.

I am told the IMF experts are regularly marooned at the Bank of Botswana giving “expert” advice.
In education, globally, the neo-conservative and neo-liberal state rests on assumptions relating to accountability, parental rights and choice, the shifting of educational costs to users and private provision of education. Education is transformed into a commodity to be bought by the consumers (students and parents). It is no longer a social service.

In the context of Botswana, the government announced that the new university will be established through PPPs. There is an increased emphasis of private sector provision in education. The reintroduction of school fees, the recent establishment of private universities, funding of students in private institutions are all part of the process.

Hardly any week passes without a government bureaucrat or politician making a statement in the press about cost-recovery.

The Department of Student Placement and Welfare adopts all sorts of means to recoup funds from its beneficiaries, including shaming of prominent public figures as was the case in 2005.

Still, the language is that of cost saving. The recent attack on school principals on the basis of non-performance fits well into the ecology of a neoliberal economic and political environment. Poor results of any school are attributed to the performance of teachers. Any other factors, including structural factors of differences between schools are subordinated by this discourse. The privileged discourse is that of performance. Thus, in some advanced neoliberal states the notion of performance based pay for teachers rules. It’s perform or perish. Even here in Australia, the Howard neo-conservative government is planning to introduce performance based pay for teachers and linking this to school funding.

We need to point out that in the Third World there has never been a wholesale rejection of public enterprises.

Where these are critical for the legitimation of the state and the sustenance of the state, they are retained. A good example is government reluctance to turn its media agencies into a public broadcaster and subject it to competition with the private media. Here, the question of inefficiency does not arise as these are ideological apparatuses of the state.

The state’s hold on information is so crucial that it cannot be in private hands.

Similarly, in advanced neo-liberal states, Keynesianism is only attacked in social services but military spending more than increases. Thus, we now have what some writers, like Manuel Castells, refer to as “military Keynesianism”. Reagan presided over the most expansive budgets in times of peace. The same could be said of Mogae’s government if you were to assess military and security expenditure now with the budgets of the 1980s when southern Africa was in turmoil. These are some of the contradictions of neo-liberalism.

Coupled with all these reforms is an attack on the labour movement. In the past five years, the onslaught of the labour movement by both capital (DEBSWANA, BCL – in complicity with the state as a shareholder) was unprecedented. A similar pattern defined Thatcherism. This, Honourable Ntuane, though undeniably not exhaustive, is the premise of neo-liberalism, a model that displaces your welfare state. We never heard your voice against this policy plague from the North. Neither have we heard that from the press, not even from The Sunday Standard, whose columnist, The Watchdog rallies us to challenge what it terms the rise of the “Hard right”, a new concept. May be it is the “New right” and it’s hard. Thus, we challenge people like the Honourable Ntuane to move beyond rhetoric. The pain of neo-liberalism it too much to bear for the working men and women, for schools, universities and the low income groups. In Latin America, they know it. They strive to seek alternatives despite sabotage from the centre. We also need to engage this New Right – to Dis-Cypionkagate and unPEEPA. Neo-liberalism has never been tinkered with and known to work for the public as the BCP (on privatisation) and Ntuane would want us to believe. Despite its pervasiveness in the region, as epitomized by Thabo Mbeki, who once said “Just call me a Thatcherite”, needs to be resisted.

Mino Polelo, a University of Botswana academic writes from Melbourne, Australia


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