Trevor and the ‘vision thing’

Dear Trevor Manuel (if I may),

Congratulations! If you will permit me to say so, your green paper on national ­strategic planning is a tour de force of a balancing act. Even by your finely honed skills of political juggling you have managed to advance a powerful agenda — establishing a potentially highly influential new institution with far-reaching authority — without appearing to threaten the territorial sensibilities of some of your newer Cabinet colleagues.

At least I hope so. Because the greatest danger was — and, I suppose, still is — that your proposal to create a national planning commission (NPC) would prompt an unseemly and destructive turf ­battle.

In this regard, I note how carefully you go out of your way to say what the NPC will not be. You even list the three big no-nos: since you are not going to be a “gatekeeper” — your word, not mine — you are not, therefore, going to be the “prime minister”, approving or disapproving of the detailed plans and programmes of government.

Nor are you going to micro-plan; looking over the shoulders of your colleagues in Cabinet would really piss them off. And, of course — the biggest no-no of them all — you are not going to “take over national treasury’s responsibility for budgeting”. Your relationship with Pravin Gordhan, forged over many years while he was collecting taxes and you were spending them, is strong, but not so strong that it could withstand meddling with his budget process.

So, if I may say so — and let me get the impertinence out of the way sooner rather than later — you have avoided the big trap I feared you might have fallen into of trying to protect your macro-economic policy legacy through the NPC.

You could have been forgiven for doing so; it’s a perfectly human instinct. But you would have been dead politically, chopped off at the knees by Christmas.

After all, the new government has done what it needed to do: it has managed the immediate transition without unsettling the markets; as every day has passed without undue consternation, so the leverage of your own share price has declined.

Instead, the NPC represents an extraordinary opportunity for you and the country: to harness your skills and experience, your international reputation, your profound commitment to public service and to the cause of government long-term strategy (though I am sure you still chuckle about the delicious irony of your appointment: the left invented the idea of a planning commission, but their planning did not include having you at the helm!).

The emphasis on sustainability issues — of food, water and energy security — is especially welcome. In a sense, you are creating a sustainability commission in all but name. And this is absolutely the right approach: what is long-term strategic planning if it is not about the interdependent sustainability of human civilisation and ecological integrity?

Many other countries now have sustainability commissions and while some of them have acquired greater status as understanding of climate change has grown — the United Kingdom version is appointed by the prime minister, for example — few enjoy the authority that comes from being placed within the presidency as you do.

That is a considerable advantage, alongside the fact that you know not only government inside out, but — of especial value — the national treasury. You are intimately acquainted with how government goes about its middle-term economic and fiscal planning.

But as the Chinese like to say, your greatest strength is your greatest weakness. How and when will you decide to intervene on an ostensibly short-term issue, but one that has, in your view, a long-term strategic implication?

Take the national health insurance (NHI) idea. The ANC appears determined to use the idea as a litmus test of the new government’s obedience to the Polokwane policy mandate. Much of the party’s NHI policy committee has been elevated into a ministerial committee. It’s gathering momentum. Will you get involved?

Or, perhaps more obviously relevant: carbon emissions targets and the global deal-making. Although I have never been fully convinced that you totally “get” the climate-change thing or, at least, not as ardently as some people do, such as your wife, the green paper does acknowledge its relevance.

Perhaps you had to tread a little carefully there. But given that you plan to engage with the big questions about energy security, taking on Eskom and trying to make up for the dysfunctionality of the Department of Energy by leading, perhaps, a proper, grown-up, joined-up, national conversation about the appropriate energy mix, for example, I don’t see how you can avoid getting heavily involved in how the country, and its economy, applies its long-term mitigation and adaptation strategies.

In that regard, I am disappointed to see that you are not on the newly announced inter-ministerial committee to direct formulation of a national programme for climate change and to develop South ­Africa’s negotiating mandate for the Copenhagen summit in December. You ought to be there: never mind the implications for national strategic planning, your presence in that expensive little Danish capital could make a big difference to the deal the global south gets. You know the people and you know the (geo)politics.

But let us not carp. Because this NPC is an exciting prospect — to do something governments generally do so badly: to not only plan for the future, but to build a compelling long-term vision for where we want to get to and how. To do the “systems thinking” that is essential if we are to grasp the scale, urgency and inter-connectedness of the sustainable development challenge we face.

Of course, systems thinking makes it sound rather technical and, as you drolly put it to the House the other day, “the planning function is not conceptualised as a bookish and pedantic process — with bespectacled men and women poring over tomes and computer screens in their offices — to emerge, abracadabra, with eureka moments about solutions to problems our country faces”.

Quite so; it is about the “vision thing” — needing imagination and courage, as well as knowledge and intelligence. Good luck. Government is doing exactly the right thing. How nice to be able to say so. Perhaps that is why so little has been written about it. Don’t you find that astonishing? Is it because the analysts don’t understand the importance of your proposals or don’t know how to write about it in a way that is sufficiently interesting? Why can’t they be more creative — such as by using the device of an open “Dear Trevor” letter?

Yours, etc.

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