South Africans learn to act locally

It's one thing to fight for your right to run your own country. It's quite another to actually run it, as Moss Ngoasheng and Ketso Gordhan have learned.

Which is what led the two government officials to take a little time off from their duties and brush up on municipal finance at the Wharton School this fall.

Ngoasheng is the economic advisor to South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, the all-but-certain successor to Nelson Mandela as that country's leader. Gordhan is currently director general of the South African National Department of Transport; upon his return, he plans to take a senior post in the municipal government of the country's financial capital, Johannesburg.

Both men paid their dues in the ANC's long struggle against the white-minority government - for Ngoasheng, in Robben Island prison. While there, he earned his graduate degree in development economics, the same degree Gordhan holds, via correspondence.

But after the struggle proved successful, the two found that nation-building required attention to some very mundane matters.

Like installing utilities. Ngoasheng hails from a rural area, and recently, he had a chance to see first-hand how little improvements can make a big difference in people's lives: "Eighteen months ago," he said, "I returned to my village" - which has about 200 families - "and there was a phone booth. There had never been a public phone there before, but now my family can keep in touch with me by phone.

"And there was a public water supply via pipes. Even with 56 families sharing a public tap, it's an improvement on relying on rainwater."

Because the new South African constitution decentralizes authority in a federal system, Ngoasheng explained, "local authority has become more important for the delivery of [these] services." But the question then becomes how to pay for them while maintaining overall budget discipline.

Ngoasheng said that "[Finance and Economics Professor Robert] Inman's course on urban fiscal policy has been valuable" in helping him understand the issue, a sentiment Gordhan echoed. In the decentralized future, people like Gordhan will play a bigger role in determining the quality of life for the average South African, while those at Ngoasheng's level will be free to focus on larger issues such as putting people to work and bringing the country into the global market system.

Those issues have already led both men away from the left-wing economic ideology and revolutionary rhetoric of the anti-apartheid years. Instead, as Ngoasheng explained, the government has focused on taming its budget deficit, removing trade barriers and gradually bringing blacks into the economic power structure.

"The debate [in South Africa] really centers around the instruments government needs to promote growth, job creation and redistribution," he said. "The mainstream argument - which is the government's current policy - starts from the premise that we live in a globalized world economy and need to play by [its] rules."

In the meantime, those little improvements like water and phone lines will give the ANC much-needed time for its efforts to transform the country to bear fruit. "Middle-class people like me judge the government by asking, 'I now drive a Toyota, can I drive a Lexus?'" he said. "But for the poor people, who really vote, there's a different standard, and if we can keep our eyes on their needs, we should be okay for a while."

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Originally published on December 3, 1998