Ismail Lagardien | State must bear some blame

The provincial government of Limpopo may not want to hear this, but it has to carry some of the blame for the outbreak of listeriosis in the province. If the provincial government was more vigilant, set standards of health and safety, and monitored these standards, there is every possibility that the outbreak of listeriosis may have been prevented. It would, of course, be disingenuous to absolve companies – managers and workers – for likely negligence, cutting corners, and ignoring health and safety standards. However, complete absolution of the state in the listeriosis crisis is baloney. About companies, briefly. Under ideal conditions there are chains of accountability that run from the workers to the supervisors and to the executives. Each person in the production chain has a responsibility for her or his work, and may be held accountable for his or her mistakes. Unfortunately, the habit of passing blame up or down chains of responsibility is probably one of our greatest failures in South Africa. Generally, when things go wrong in industry or manufacturing, consumers blame companies, the managers blame workers, workers blame machinery or their supervisors who then turn on trade unions. This cycle then repeats itself in some permutation of passing the blame. In the specific case of the listeriosis crisis, the government and effective regulation and administrative justice come into play. We should be clear, one of the main purposes of government is to provide public goods and services, the most important of which are education, public safety and (public) health care. There are, of course, those among us who would argue against health as a public good. Such arguments invariably rest on ideological beliefs that assume states cannot be entrepreneurial and are unable or incapable of providing goods and services efficiently. The purveyors of this belief conveniently ignore the fact that the state has historically invested in, legislated for and sustained research and development in medical research; from combating malaria to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology. In the US, one body of research shows that since its creation the National Institutes of Health has spent almost a trillion dollars on research that created the pharmaceutical and the biotech sectors. The belief that the state should get out of the way for private sector provision of all private and public goods works only with heavy qualifications. And anyway, it may be true only in fully libertarian societies (there is, actually, no evidence of any such a society), or in places like Somalia, where the state collapsed in the early 1990s and when all functions of the state ceased to exist.

The case for government regulation in health and food safety should be easy to make. Only the most orthodox of economists and our more conservative citizens would make the case for deregulation. We know now, rather late, that the doyen of late capitalist deregulation, Alan Greenspan, admitted, shortly after the onset of the 2008 global crisis that his ideological obsession with deregulation helped create conditions for the crisis. That’s another story. With respect to the listeriosis case, the provincial government, and probably the national government, too, should take some responsibility. It is the government that sets standards and regulations. Consider the example of milk sales. Just by the way, there is a larger crisis in the making in the pharmaceutical industry because of illicit flows of sub-standard or sub-therapeutic drugs that flow across the country’s borders. There is no sense, at least not publicly, that the national government quite understands the impact that counterfeit pharmaceuticals can have on the community. Let me try an example of why states have to intervene directly in food production, as if it is not clear enough. Imagine that farmers sell milk from their own cows. Each farmer sets a price at, say, R5 a litre. This seems fair. Then one of the farmers dilutes her milk with water. She now sells a combination of 500ml each of milk and water. By doing this she gains an unfair financial advantage – which is what all capitalist enterprises thrive on – but she also affects the nutritional value of the milk. This is when the state is required to set standards of what actually constitutes milk, what standards of hygiene are expected and then monitors the entire process to ensure that it is safe for human consumption. On this basis, the Limpopo government may easily be placed near the centre of the listeriosis crisis. That it may have failed in its responsibilities to ensure the health and safety of the public should come as no surprise. Corruption Watch reported that during the first half of last year, corruption in Limpopo shot up by 123%. Over December last year and January this year, 33 police officers were arrested for corruption. It is fair to say that trust in the provincial government is at a low point. It is also fair to say that the provincial government could have done more to prevent the listeriosis outbreak.