/ 10 June 2011

In search of win-win solutions

In Search Of Win Win Solutions

This past week, the National Planning Commission (NPC) released its first set of reports. Included in the release are elements of a vision statement and a set of diagnostic reports that set out the key challenges that South Africa faces.

Taking the elimination of poverty and the reduction of inequality as the key objectives of our country, the commission has identified nine key challenges that stand in the way of achieving these objectives.

The NPC consists of the chairperson and 25 independent commissioners appointed by the president for their expertise and experience. The president has given the commission a broad and bold mandate to be objective, critical and non-partisan in contributing to the development of a plan for a better South Africa.

The release of these reports signals the start of a phase of public engagement and listening to South Africans about the key challenges that confront us as a country and solutions that can be adopted to solve our main problems. For any plan to be credible and implementable, it must have broad support from the public.

The overriding conclusion of the commission is that, in spite of our immense progress so far, we have failed to reverse the social exclusion and marginalisation of millions of our citizens that apartheid left us with. Economic development so far has not been sufficiently inclusive. While we have identified nine issues that bedevil our efforts to confront poverty and inequality, in our opinion two stand out as more important than other issues.

The first is that too few South Africans work. Only 41% of adult South Africans work in either the formal or informal sector. This is extraordinarily low by international standards, with other developing countries having about two-thirds of their adult population in some form of employment.

The causes of our low levels of employment are complex and relate to the historical structure of the economy, spatial inequalities, labour-market imperfections and decades of economic and social exclusion of black people.

Given that the vast majority of our unemployed are poorly skilled we have to find ways of drawing millions of them into work. Improving the skills base is essential, but it will take time to show significant improvements. Achieving a more labour-absorbent economy is an unavoidable necessity and will require a radical rethink of several of our policies that at present contribute to the bias against people in our economy.

Our second key challenge is that the quality of education for the vast majority of black people remains poor. According to the department of basic education, of those who passed matric in 2010, only 15% received an aggregate mark above 40%. We also know that a significant proportion of young people drop out of school before they reach matric. Reading and maths scores among black learners are poor by international standards.

Key reasons include poor-quality teaching, too little contact time, high rates of absenteeism and a large proportion of school principals who do not manage their schools properly.

The effect is that millions of people are trapped outside the labour market and a large share of those inside cannot progress through ­productivity improvements.

The level of social exclusion that we experience leads to low levels of social cohesion, mistrust and a fragmentation of society, which, in turn, leads to a series of other challenges, from high crime levels to domestic violence.

We need a united and more cohesive country, one in which opportunity is constantly being broadened. We seek win-win solutions that broaden opportunities for historically disadvantaged South Africans, thereby creating the basis for faster and more inclusive growth, benefiting everyone. Win-lose options will further polarise us and compromise our ability to achieve our objectives on a sustainable basis.

In addition to the two challenges raised above, other critical challenges include inadequate and poorly maintained infrastructure, the spatial legacy of apartheid and its exclusionary effect, and the resource-intensive nature of our growth path, which is unsustainable. Confronting these challenges will require new forms of institutional co-operation to ensure adequate investment and maintenance.

Furthermore, we would have to make the transition to a less carbon-intensive economy and to use our land and water resources more efficiently. While these are imperatives, we must do this taking account of the impact on the economy, on the poor and on employment.

The performance of the public service is uneven, leading to differentiated and often shoddy services for poor communities. Key factors include policy instability, skills shortages, weak management, low productivity and weak oversight and accountability. These failings, combined with a breakdown of ethics in society, contribute to high levels of corruption, which further reduce the ability of government to deliver to the poor.

Many of the issues raised in the diagnostic are not new or unknown. The NPC has researched these matters extensively, harvesting research already done, commissioning new papers, engaging with experts and non-governmental organisations and testing ideas. We need to do this because we want to move beyond anecdotal tales and plan by making firm, implementable recommendations for consideration.

These are formidable challenges, but we are optimistic, because South Africa has demonstrated in the past that it can come together and unite around a common programme to deal with our challenges. We require that same unity and common purpose to make greater progress in eliminating poverty and reducing inequality.

This diagnostic report is an analysis of our key challenges. The plan to solve these problems is still being developed. This plan will require the input and support of all South Africans. It must cut across government and society. It will require government to develop new ways of working between departments, across spheres and with other segments of society. Success will also require leadership, the ability to take difficult decisions and the willingness to put a better future ahead of short-term gain.

Trevor Manuel is a member of Parliament and the minister and chair of the National Planning Commission