By Khulekani Mathe
August 15 marks five years since South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) was adopted in parliament. It is an opportune time to assess how far we have come towards attaining the noble goals of that plan, which aimed at eliminating poverty and reducing inequality by 2030.
Normally, one would say that a long-term project like the NDP should not be judged in five years. Unfortunately, we are already in a position to see that the right steps are not being taken to achieving the goals of the plan.
At the time of its adoption in 2012, members of all political parties represented in the fourth parliament rose to speak in support of the NDP. If there was any difference among party members of parliament, it was on whether the governing party would be able to implement this plan. The consensus was that, if implemented, the programme would help the country to address many of our intractable problems.
Sadly, we have not built on that goodwill. Other considerations seem to have overtaken that focus. The government has published its Medium Term Strategic Framework, which is a five-year plan for the 2014-2019 administration based on the NDP. But quite frankly, that plan doesn’t cut it. If it did, we wouldn’t be where we are.
The economy is in recession and unemployment is at its highest in 14 years. Our sovereign credit rating has been downgraded to sub-investment grade and consumer and investor confidence is at its lowest in the democratic era.
Corruption is rampant across sectors and there are serious governance weaknesses in all major state-owned companies. The state is hollowed out with many experienced public servants having left government resulting in many departments and major institutions run by acting heads.
Most disturbingly, race relations have deteriorated so much that almost every week a nasty racial incident takes place with black people at the receiving end.
We cannot say that intra-Alliance factionalism has affected implementation of the NDP. Our leaders in government simply lost focus. The weakening of our state-owned companies, and our various departments, proves this.
It takes strong institutions, with strong leadership, to implement a long-term plan. It also takes a while to build an institution that can run its affairs effectively. It is unfortunate that the very few such institutions in our government have been weakened or are under severe attack.
One was the South African Revenue Service. The other was National Treasury. Both have been weakened significantly in recent years. Our crime fighting institutions and prosecuting authority have been extremely weak for nearly a decade. The significant progress made in turning around the Department of Home Affairs, to the delight of many citizens who are now able to receive their identity documents and passports within a week of applying, is at risk.
Our highly regarded statistical agency, Statistics South Africa, will soon break unless urgent steps are taken to resolve the leadership impasse. The attacks on the South African Reserve Bank is cause for grave concern because it indicates that those who want to weaken our institutions for their own benefit will stop at nothing.
While the NDP came at a point when the economy wasn’t doing great, following the global financial crisis, it gave us something around which we could mobilise people to turn the situation around. Instead of doing that, we have gone in the opposite direction and destroyed even the limited capacity that we had to help implement the NDP.
One sees this throughout the system, especially with the removal of senior public servants. The case of the SASSA CEO, directors-general of departments of Water and Sanitation and Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries come to mind. Some structures have been run for a considerable period with people in acting capacity. Just in case someone thinks I am making all of this up, think of SABC, PRASA, Eskom, and until recently, SAA. These acting heads cannot really plan and implement over a long term because their positions are uncertain.
At any given point, 10 or more government departments have had acting heads. That is not how one builds the capacity to implement a long-term plan like the NDP.
This is not to say that all is lost.
One of the six pillars of the NDP, which was not fully appreciated at the time, but which has become more relevant, is its call for active citizenry. I was fortunate to be involved in formulating the NDP, and at the time we recognised that the plan would not be delivered by government alone if the citizenry outsourced its responsibility to the state and did not play a direct role.
The NDP called for citizens to take part in their own development at community level, but also by holding accountable those entrusted with the responsibility of delivering services.
We see now that we need South Africans in their numbers, in the various sectors of society, to raise their voices against wrong-doing and to make sure that the decisions taken benefit all of society and not just a few people.
We also need to work together, across sectors in an interdisciplinary manner, as the NDP recommended. Progress was made in that regard – particularly in building relations between government and business demonstrated in the formation of the CEO Initiative. Recent developments have destroyed that trust and we will have to work hard at rebuilding it.
There are limits to what any sector can achieve acting alone. This is not rocket science. We know we have done better as a country when we pull together, and poorly when we do the opposite.
It’s going to take a while for things to settle politically and for government to truly align its actions with the NDP’s strategic vision. But there is no reason why, after that dust settles, that we shouldn’t be back on track.
The NDP says nothing that has not been said before. It simply organises ideas in a logical and implementable manner.
It talks about the need to grow the economy, create employment and address poverty and inequality. These are accepted broad objectives. It does go into detail in some areas – for instance on fixing education and health. It also presents some innovative ideas on how to address land reform and revitalise rural economies. All South Africans would agree that we need to pursue these objectives among others. What we lack at the moment is the leadership to harness our collective energy as a nation and channel it in the right direction.
Our five-year-old NDP is a pragmatic plan, poetic in parts, designed with no particular ideology in mind. I know its detractors have accused it of being neoliberal, but that’s not entirely true. It contains ideas that resonate across the political and ideological spectrum.
It advocates for a developmental state, which is far from a neoliberal concept. A capable, developmental state, that builds the capacity to uplift its people, eliminate poverty and reduce inequality.
It remains as relevant as ever – to government and the people. It is high time that we rediscover this roadmap to our country’s development and recommit – as active citizens – to making it work.