/ 18 November 2011

Manuel’s 20:30 vision

For months now, Planning Minister Trevor Manuel has been sequestered with his team, mapping out the country’s future.

This is a pretty cool job, predicting the future, but also a tough one. Who really knows what the world is going to be like in 2013, never mind 2030?

Manuel’s long-awaited report has been unveiled for public scrutiny. Some of the offering is pretty folksy, there having been a “jam” session where participants gave input. There is even a YouTube video that has been creating some buzz.

I tried to look at it, trying three different internet connections from three different locations, but it was just too slow. (The National Planning Commission [NPC] bemoans our inadequate IT infrastructure as one of the things holding us back.)

Underpinning press releases and presentations by Manuel is a 444-page document he has invited us to read. I took up the challenge.

Combining folksiness with complex economics, it includes a vision statement with these enablers of life: “We have water. We use a toilet. We have food on the table. We fall asleep without fear. We listen to the rain on the roof. We gather together in front of heat.”

The NPC’s National Development Plan: Vision for 2030 passes the accessibility test. Although it is long, it is easy to read, its tone being positive while not shying away from strident criticism where required.

It contains numerous surprises and challenges, not least because it projects an unemployment rate of just 6% by 2030.

But if this is our goal, how do we get there and what role does the NPC play in the process? It, after all, has no executive power, but rather relies on other government ministries for implementation.

‘More than a call to action’
Vision 2030 is full of points that require implementation and speaks generally as though these things are happening or will happen. As such, it is more than a call to action.

For the most part, it does not want dramatic new interventions to tackle unemployment and poverty. We just have to do what we already do, but better or, in some cases, much better.

Government, as a key enabler, is seen to be both overpaid and, with exceptions, inept.

It says the state has to play a transformative and developmental role. To do this it has to be well run, co-ordinated and staffed by skilled ­professionals committed to the ­public good.

“South Africa is a long way off from this desired end state and some fundamental steps have to be taken or South Africa is unlikely to achieve many of the objectives set out in the rest of the plan,” the NPC says.

Solutions include depoliticising the public service, making it a career of choice, developing technical and specialist professional skills among public servants, improving relations between national, provincial and local government and improving the functioning of the state-owned enterprises.

Good decisions regarding energy policy are also important. There are two potential game-changers here, the one being nuclear. The report does not say it in so many words, but it is clear that it sees this option as prohibitively costly.

Although the jury is out on the environmental risks of fracking, the NPC sees this option as potentially attractive. It quotes the United States Energy Information Administration, which estimates South Africa’s recoverable shale gas as being the fifth-largest in the world.

Shale gas has the potential to supply more than half of current electricity production.

“South Africa will seek to develop these resources, providing the overall environmental cost and benefits outweigh the current costs and benefits associated with South Africa’s dependence on coal or with the alternative of nuclear power.”

The provision of good infrastructure is key, be it a better telecommunications backbone, digging out a new harbour for Durban where the old airport used to be, or extending the railway from Richards Bay to the coalfields of the Waterberg.

But much of Vision 2030 is more of the same. It is about doing what we already do, but better.

It is about introducing more flexibility, such as in labour markets, to encourage the hiring of new people on probation.

It is about recognising that South Africa is already succeeding in key areas and about building on this success.