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Public Policy, Electoral Manifestoes, and the Limits of Catholic Social Teaching – A Dispatch from South Africa

I am writing these reflections in Johannesburg, South Africa, a few days before the country goes to the polls (29 May 2024) in what some consider the nation’s most important general election since 1994. Apart from the fact that polls suggest that, for the first time since 1994, the incumbent African National Congress (ANC) may not get an outright majority[1] (with the prospect of having to govern nationally and provincially in a number of possible coalitions), the election is happening amidst crises surrounding poverty, inequality, education, health and electricity supply – to name but a few – further complicated by a political culture marked by mismanagement, corruption and impunity of the powerful. Inevitably, many NGOs, including the religious community, have used the election run-up to challenge the electorate to explore the underlying values they seek in those they elect.

Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has featured prominently in these debates.

The question I am asking is how far our CST is able to address the issues in, to use James Bretzke’s term, “a morally complex world”[2]. Let me start by looking at a few key issues.

Public Health: Roughly 80% of all health care in the country is consumed by 20% of the population, through the private sector. 80% of the population rely on the remaining 20% of care provided by state-run facilities.  Recently, in a move that cynics say is an election ploy, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed into law a new National Health Bill[3] that entails a payroll tax on all the employed to cover health expenses – whether they have private health insurance or not.  Critics of the Bill, notably from private health insurances and care providers, argue that this will devastate their sector. In addition, some observers believe that the state plan is neither financially nor logistically viable[4].

Having worked in a medical faculty (as an ethicist) I note a further complication. While our faculty favoured public health, and students generally sympathized with it, young medical graduates’ public sector experience after studies was often so unpleasant – shortage of resources, poor security in hospitals, and a toxic mix of mismanagement and corruption by hospital administrators – that many quickly got out of the public sector. Many emigrated. My fear is that forcing more into public health that has never resolved its problems may not necessarily deliver better health care. Good intentions, certainly. Consistent with values of CST (justice, dignity of persons, equality of access, etc.), most probably. But…

Electricity Supply: From the apartheid era onwards, electricity provision has been managed by a state corporation, ESKOM[5]. Once among the best managed and cheapest in the world, because it was run as a public (common) good not subject to the whims of private monopolies, ESKOM has declined significantly since 1994. Poor foresight in providing new power stations to meet needs has been compounded by failure to maintain power stations, tardiness in building new ones, and massive levels of corruption by political appointees in high office (once again untouchable due to their connections) has resulted in economically and socially devastating power shortages and rolling blackouts. These power cuts, an engineer friend who helps manage them has told me, were to prevent a complete grid overload and complete breakdown. Until recently any attempts at creating alternative power supplies were effectively blocked by the State in the name of ‘equality’ (or as cynics say preserving state monopoly). This has changed recently.

As we near the election, it is worth noting that the blackouts have stopped. Many politicians in opposition have called this a cynical state move to garner votes. My engineer source tells me however that this is not the case. With freeing up electricity provision, private initiatives – often businesses previously hit by power cuts – have generated their own power supplies (mostly through solar) that have eased the pressure on the national grid. From a CST perspective we see in this a number of new themes, notably the principle of Subsidiarity, in play.

For brevity’s sake, I shall not explore the other burning issues facing South African voters today, apart from noting that most of them entail directly or indirectly (mostly directly) the problem of corruption and public impunity on the part of government and cronyism in the ruling party, a party (and its allies) that has had to play up the legacy of the liberation struggle, and the (real) disparity between rich and poor that still has a significantly racial face, to hold on to power.

It seems that this has worn thin with the electorate. How thin we shall see – and you will have seen – on 29th May.

Apart from the obvious political ethical questions that the election raises, the two examples I have described illustrate for me a problem that most of us seldom explore in the field of CST: the problem of complexity. While at bottom a set of moral principles, it is in the application of the principles to a situation that is subject to often very different analyses that the challenge lies. How we see the situation, and the conclusions we reach, is deeply rooted in our analysis.

While I by no means claim that they have used CST as a tool, or indeed even know of it[6], it is worth exploring how some of the 30-plus parties contesting the election see the situation. Sadly, rhetoric and populist grandstanding, or rigorous adherence to ideological principles, predominate. Most election manifestoes share certain common assumptions – corruption is bad; crime is out of control; unemployment and poverty is unacceptable – but their analysis varies, often along what I see as a kind of ‘MAGA’ spectrum from far left to far right. Thus for some the problem is ‘capitalism’, ‘white privilege’, ‘unequal distribution of land’, ‘foreigners and immigrants who steal our jobs (and women)’ – and the solution is ‘nationalization’ (of pretty much everything), ‘land redistribution’, and ‘closing borders’. For the other extreme, the problem is ‘too much state control’ and ‘not enough free market capitalism’.

Could CST help them to a more nuanced position? Perhaps. But even this is by no means clear.

My unease is that all too often the ideological biases and lack of careful analysis – including exploring possible scenarios and contingencies that might change the social picture – of CST users renders it vulnerable. What CST needs if it is to be more effective is for the principle of uncertainty, of contingency, to be injected into it more thoroughly at the social analysis stage.

Though never a fan of former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, I (and epistemologist Christopher Norris) agree with his musings about ‘known knowns’, ‘known unknowns’, and ‘unknown unknowns’[7]. There are so many things we don’t know, so many possibilities that are off the radar at the time we do social analysis[8] that our conclusions must be provisional, cautious and potentially flexible enough to revise or at least limit unforeseen damage that our decisions might cause. Will a course of action actually work – with the positive results we have envisioned? If so, great! If not, will the damage done be worse than if we’d done nothing or something else? And after embarking on a failed course, how much repair must we done (assuming we can) before taking a different direction?

Our two examples illustrate the positive and potentially negative aspect of uncertainty. In the case of power supply, a pragmatic move has alleviated a problem. In the ongoing national health issue the potentiality for greater harm in the shorter, medium and perhaps long term looms. In both cases from a CST perspective our ‘known known’ is that greater justice is served by access to public health for the poor and reasonably priced electricity for all. In the latter it is also that the service currently supplied does not serve the common good, thus needing a change in policy. Our ‘known unknowns’ is that we cannot see possible outcomes for both policies, whether or negative. And our ‘unknown unknowns’ about both is how shifts in both policies will affect the country. In all cases, pragmatism and epistemic humility should be our underlying practice as we engage as Christians with the issues.

In addition, as I have noted in my exploration above, rival themes in CST might come into play in the same problem. We see this in health care where we can see clearly the injustice of the previous health system which demanded some kind of correction. Yet the other underlying problems – corruption and its accompanying cronyism – seem not to have been addressed in the process, rendering the potential for at best poor outcomes, at worst an even worse health system for everyone: the greatest harm for the greatest number. In power supply, just distribution has been supplemented by a kind of subsidiarity, where companies save the national energy provider resources that can be better distributed to those who cannot source their own power.

Finally, let me return to the present context: the election. With regards to adopting a more epistemologically cautious approach from a CST perspective in analyzing the promises and manifestoes of parties, the opportunity has already passed – at least for five years. As you read this, some form of government, probably one or other form of coalition, will be either in place or in the making. The opportunity for exponents of CST to influence voting in South Africa has passed.

But as know, many more countries in the world – including a number in Africa – are going to the polls this year. Perhaps my thoughts, belated for South Africa, might be applied elsewhere.

[1] . See: “30 Years of Democracy: South Africa’s 2024 elections marked by uncertainty and a desire for change”, (accessed 24 May 2024)

[2] . James T. Bretzke, A Morally Complex World: Engaging Contemporary Moral Theology (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2004).

[3] . National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill,,access%20to%20health%20care%20services%E2%80%A6 (accessed 24 May 2024).

[4] . Ciaran Rayan, “A primer: What the NHI means for South Africa” (16 May 2024), (accessed 24 May 2024)

[5] . For background see: Sylvy Jaglin & Alain Dubresson, Eskom: Electricity and Technopolitics in South Africa. (Cape Town: UCT Press, 2016).

[6] . Though it should be noted that during the 1980s many of the liberations movements used a variant of the ‘See-Judge-Act’ methodology in their socio-political analysis.

[7] . Christopher Norris, Epistemology (London: Continuum, 2005), 18-22, at 18.

[8] . How many of us foresaw Covid-19, for example?