Free biscuits and gender violence

The minister of women, Lulu Xingwana, failed to turn up for a crucial gender debate in parliament this week. This is not surprising. Even the most able person would balk at taking responsibility for the orgy of  violence against women that has reportedly swept South Africa in recent weeks.

In fact, one way to ensure that any issue with broad societal implication is never dealt with is to create ministry to handle it. The reason is simple. Such issues are, in the execrable terminology of governance, “transversal”.  That means, simply, that they’re everywhere.

This is certainly true of women. It’s also true of small businesses, of sportsmen and women and of nebulous economic development. Which is why these each have ministries that are utterly futile. Small business, for example, far from being a sector, happens on every corner.

Unlike real ministries like public education and health, which have both a distinctive purpose and quantifiable outcomes to report against, these are ministries without reason. What, for example, are officials in the ministry of sport supposed to do with their day? Any impact by the civil service on Leviathian overarching issues – like those dealing with our gender or playtime activities – would ordinarily require the coordinated and energetic efforts of many ministries, you might think.

But all ministries naturally prefer to slog away at their own “stretch targets” in their own silos. No minister or chief accounting officer could be responsible for the activities of people in other departments of state, whatever the overlap of intent. It would be silly to imagine otherwise. And any politician or career public servant who took on such an evangelical mission would anyway be cut down in that peculiar South African approach to the tall poppy – by immediately being thought worthy of promotion to national leadership.

In our generation, governments are relied on to “do something” about the important social issues. At least that’s what politicos and state employees tend to think; even have to think.

Traditionally, handling sensitive but “urgent” social matters meant creating a “standing commission”, an outstanding device for looking busy while standing still, while the urgency of public scrutiny dissipates. Nowadays, whole ministries have emerged to manage these same things and to provide happily convenient discourse-shut-down employment for issue-specific activists too.
It’s a neat trick, but deeply cynical. Simply,  if you’re in government or the state apparatus and you want to be seen to be dealing something that has obsessed the public, or the media (often imagined as  the same thing), and you need to get pesky activists off your proverbial back, then  need to  start a new state ministry and underlying department.

Be sure, though, to gut the issue-specific activist leadership by paying them handsomely to run the thing. And lock them in with golden handcuffs and whispered rules about public administrative complexity, the need for solidarity, a vague but disquieting overhang of “possible redeployment” and, best of all, long term personal credit contracts that only continued shelter in the issue ministry can service. As always, it’s important to always have free biscuits on hand.

So it is that our massively enlightened political strata, a miracle rising, has a human rights commission, a youth commission, a minorities commission, a women’s ministry and cabinet-rank representation of the special interests of the disabled. Politically, it is acoustic soundboarding – absorbing unwelcome noise, soothing apprehension, but ultimately unable to mask the underlying racket that reality just won’t stop throwing up. Far from being signs of enlightenment, issue-based state bodies are too often a deflection from public honesty, societal responsibility, and democratic civic responsiveness.
–          David Christianson