Development Watch

How South Africa’s Development Plan can be resuscitated

Steven Friedman
Steven Friedman.jpg

Something is surely wrong when many influential people endorse or reject a document none of them have read.

The document is South Africa’s National Development Plan, (NDP) which was adopted five years ago by Parliament five years ago and as a product of a National Planning Commission, led by former finance minister Trevor Manuel and current deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa.

The NDP has become almost an article of faith for business leaders and business friendly commentators. In what has become a knee jerk reaction, they routinely demand its implementation by government.

In an equally knee jerk reaction, unionists, activists and commentators on the left denounce it as a programme to appease business by sacrificing workers and the poor to the market.

But the plan’s praise singers, ánd its opponents, have something important in common: neither has ever read the document of almost 500 pages. If they had, they would know that the label they pin on it does not fit.

It is not a clear step-by-step programme for change. It is a broad, sometimes internally contradictory, document – a basis for negotiation far more than a road map.

Those who see the NDP as a coherent document seem to have forgotten the political battle it triggered when it was initiated by the Thabo Mbeki administration shortly before being removed from office.

The ANC’s alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), blamed Mbeki and Manuel of appeasing business. As Cosatu noted in a document released in late 2009, they believed that Manuel would use the National Planning Commission (NPC) to impose a business friendly approach on government and the alliance.

They suspected, probably correctly, that the Mbeki government had wanted the commission to become the centre of government planning. After Jacob Zuma replaced Mbeki they mobilised successfully against this. The result was an agreement that the NCP would simply provide support to government and that the NDP would be a broad vision of targets for 2030 and not a detailed plan. The NDP is not a firm plan and never meant to be one.

A mixed bag

Those seeing it aa a route map, tend also to forget that those sitting on the commission represented a range of interests and the NDP was therefore, a compromise document, party explaining why it offers something to everyone – something clear to anyone who takes the trouble to read it.

One who did, is former SACP deputy general secretary, Jeremy Cronin, who in a reply to left-wing unions calling it the work of the devil, argued  that it was impossible to endorse or reject the entire document – both opponents and friends of the market could find support for their positions in it.

He rejected the chapter on the economy as too friendly to markets, but endorsed the chapter foreseeing a key state role in changing the shape of cities and sections suggesting a strong government role in development.

If Cronin worked for the Chamber of Business, he would no doubt have endorsed the economic chapter and rejected the passages on the state’s role. The key point in his analysis, however, was that, whichever side of the economic debate you were on, you would find passages in the plan to endorse and others to oppose.

This was illustrated some years ago when organised agriculture denounced a government proposal for regional land redistribution committees. This, it turned out, came the left union movement or friends of state capture, but from the ‘business friendly’ NDP.

Why do both sides endorse or reject the NDP without bothering to read it? The answer might be in the personalised nature of South African politics.

Business and its supporters trust Manuel and Ramaphosa and assume that they must have produced a strongly market friendly document. Assuming the same thing, the left distrusts them.

This might have been amusing if it did not led to a sterile debate, doing nothing to focus minds on what needs to change the economy is to grow and include many more people.

Useful bits and pieces

Even if the NDP was a clear map, there are so many ideas for change, not even the most efficient government in the world could implement it in less than a decade or two.

Given this, when parliament – and government – promised NDP implementation, they could not possibly have been committing to implementing all of it. If they were serious about implementing its economic and social proposals, they needed to signal clearly which ones they favoured, which would inevitably affected the interests of key economic interest groups. They would have needed to negotiate these changes with them.

The government has not done this. It seems likely this means government will seek to implement the NDP sections which affect itself directly.

The plan might offer something to everyone on social and economic issues, but it does also indicate a clear way to improve how government functions. By endorsing the document, the government was surely agreeing to take the steps recommended to build a “capable state.” So, it makes sense to hold the government to account for the degree to which it has – or has not – implemented the plan’s recommendations on fixing itself.

For the rest, it would make more sense to insist that government clearly signal which other sections it plans to implement, rather than to insist it implement (or reject) all of it.

This offers a key to the role the NDP could play in moving South Africa forward. Business, labour and other interest groups are far more likely to find the plan useful if they identify those sections they would like to see implemented and then pressed the government to act on them, using the fact that they appear in the document as a lever.

They will obviously face opposition from those with differing interests, but that is how democracy works. The NDP would then be a catalyst for debate and negotiation on details, not a take it or leave it recipe.

Five years on, the NDP could help focus attention on economic change. But only if both sides stop seeing it as a fetish rather than a way of starting a conversation.

(This is a slightly shortened and adapted version of an article that was originally published on The Conversation website. The original article by Steven Friedman, Professor of Political Studies at the University of Johannesburg can be read here.)

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