TINA Joemat-Pettersson has faced a relentless barrage of criticism since her appointment as agriculture, forestry and fisheries minister in 2009. But inside sources now claim that she is the secret mastermind behind a revolutionary philosophy of government.

Joemat-Pettersson’s "immobilist" governance model emerged last year after a sequence of accidents involving submarines bequeathed to the nation by the "arms deal". The SAS Manthatisi was confined to dry dock at Simon’s Town naval base after it was steered into a quay; her propulsion batteries were then fused after being plugged into the wrong socket (probably at the same time as a hairdryer and kettle). The SAS Charlotte Maxeke required an emergency bathroom refit. And the attack submarine SAS Queen Modjadji dived into the ocean floor while conducting training exercises between Port Elizabeth and Durban.

Panicking defence ministry officials commissioned a formal inquiry into why untrained naval officers had been issued with submarine driving licences by the Gauteng vehicle registration and licensing office in Roodepoort. But Joemat-Pettersson, as is often remarked, has an "open mind". Observing that confining these hugely expensive submarines to dock made absolutely no difference whatsoever to anybody, she was emboldened to initiate an "immobilism" experiment in her own department.

In 2011, she had already tried to award an R800m tender for fisheries protection to Sekunjalo Holdings, the owner of Premier Fishing. Premier’s trawlers, she insightfully recognised, could inspect and regulate themselves, so rendering the state’s entire coastal protection fleet redundant. Building on the navy’s pioneering work, she confined all coastal protection vessels to Simon’s Town dock. Critics argued that monitoring by the research vessel SAS Afrikaner was needed to secure Marine Stewardship Council certification for hake exports. The minister’s immobilist insight was that, if she did nothing at all, the South African Deep Sea Trawler Industry Association would have to undertake the necessary research on the department’s behalf. She was right.

An enthused President Jacob Zuma is now pressing for immobilism across the public sector and for partners and citizens to take full responsibility for delivering their own public services to themselves.

Much has already been done. Farmers fix impassable rural roads. Education quality is monitored by the South African Democratic Teachers' Union. Police officers impose fines on citizens, freeing up senior officers to work as hit men for criminal gangs or as protection assets in the taxi industry.

Traditional leaders have agreed to take over land allocation and women’s rights. The philanthropic Gupta Foundation shoulders human resources responsibilities that once weighed down public sector bureaucrats. Foreign affairs analysts have been relieved of their duties by the Chinese Communist Party. Businesspeople in the resources sector have agreed to take troop deployment decisions on the state’s behalf. French and Chinese governments now inform South African ministers which nuclear power stations they will buy. Mining houses have agreed to generate their own electricity. And big construction companies decide where major roads should be built and how they will be funded.

Ministers no longer need to read Cabinet documents, instead passing them directly to consultants. Gauteng’s department of infrastructure development has even succeeded in "losing" nearly 20,000 of its buildings as a result of new partnerships with civil society activists in the property sector.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions’ new leader, Sdumo Dlamini, now proposes to assist the tired mandarins of the Treasury. "Our freedom," he observes, "cannot be delayed by bureaucrats." Once the immobilism programme is concluded, and the burdens on the state lifted, citizens, working together, will be able to do still more: constructing improvised dams to channel raw sewage, for example. Joemat-Pettersson’s philosophy of government offers a compelling alternative to the detested neoliberal orthodoxy of the National Planning Commission.

Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.