National plan is almost good to go

It is written on the box: "Our future – make it work."

"Make it work" is an imperative that extends across society, from business to labour, from the state to private individuals, said Minister in the Presidency for National Planning Commission Trevor Manuel, when he launched the plan in Parliament.

The vision for the country's future into 2030, has been the subject of extensive deliberation since the draft was released last year in November.

This document is not a creature of party politics or the government. A range of experts from civil society collectively reached its recommendations, which Cabinet must still adopt.

Given its tough recommendations that fly in the face of a number of state driven policies (such as the government's nuclear procurement drive), or the clear position the planning commission has taken on issues where government continues to prevaricate (such as a youth wage subsidy), it remains to be seen what Cabinet will decide.

The plan will be formerly tabled at the Cabinet lekgotla in September.

The development plan, unlike a number of previous overarching government policies, does not focus purely on economic interventions however. It covers everything from promoting the health of our nation, to transforming education, to improving the functioning of the state.

Recommended actions
Each of these elements, ­delineated by ­chapter, includes a series of objectives and a set of recommended actions to achieve those objectives.

The development plan may adopt a different stance to the government on certain issues, but it dovetails to some degree with existing state programmes – efforts at investing in infrastructure, for instance, or the phased approach the health department is taking in establishing a national health insurance system.

The plan is marginally different from last November's draft plan, although its broad emphasis on various issues has not changed.

A bid to link teachers' pay to pupils' performance has been rejected because it would have been difficult to implement. Instead, a focus has been placed on school-based incentives, rewarding schools that improve their annual national assessments over a period of three consecutive years.

The final version of the plan strengthened its proposals regarding small, medium and micro enterprises, which the commission sees as a chief source for new job creation. Proposals include simplifying the regulatory environment. The plan recommends a comprehensive regulatory review to assess whether special conditions are needed for small, medium and micro enterprises in relation to business registration, tax, labour and local government regulation.

The document expands its call for gas to form part of the country's energy mix. Aside from its support for the possibilities of shale gas, it explored other sources of gas, including offshore natural gas, coal bed methane and liquefied natural gas.

The commission's position on the question of security of coal supplies for energy, appears to have changed somewhat. The plan had previously proposed the institution of export permits on certain grades of coal but the final plan cautions against an approach that "might have unintended consequences" and opts for a more co-operative one.

Optimal utilisation
"The best initial approach should be to facilitate a win-win solution between Eskom and coal miners," it said. "Eskom, coal miners and the government need to work together to plan the optimal utilisation of specific fields."

The framework for this co-operation potentially exists in the coal road map exercise, an initiative that the government is leading through the department of mineral resources.

The commission did not back down on its position that government should reconsider its nuclear procurement plans.

The plan says: "A potential nuclear fleet will involve a level of investment unprecedented in South Africa." An in-depth cost benefit analysis, which looked at financial, environmental and safety costs of such as programme is vital.

The country needs a "plan B" should nuclear energy "prove too expensive, sufficient financing be unavailable or timelines too tight", it argued.

"All possible alternatives need to be explored, including the use of gas, which could provide reliable base load and mid-merit power generation through combined-cycle gas turbines."

The commission similarly retained its position that youth unemployment be addressed urgently through the inclusion of tax subsidies and similar incentives to get businesses to hire young workers.

The costs of this all could potentially be staggering, but Manuel told journalists it would be funded through changing the way money and resources were spent. "It's not so much additional resources, a lot of it is from changing the way in which spending happens."

Transforming the system
Addressing challenges in education, for instance, were not about "how much money you throw at the problem, it's about how your transform the system", he said.

Aside from getting Cabinet to endorse the plan as a whole, implementation remains a risk. The commission's determination to see the development of a capable state will play an important role in implementation.

It retained its emphasis, on the need for stabilising the interface between the state administration and party politics. Major steps towards this would be the creation of an administrative head of the public service; a hybrid approach to top appointments that allows for the reconciliation of administrative and political priorities; and a purely administrative approach for lower-level appointments, where senior officials have authority to appoint departmental staff.

Nomaxabiso Majokweni, chief executive of Business Unity South Africa, stressed the importance of a capable state as a key priority in the implementation of the plan, alongside addressing unemployment and education.

Manuel argued that the national development plan was cross cutting, so various aspects of it could be implemented independently of others.

And should the Cabinet choose to only adopt or implement aspects of the plan, Manuel believed that the focus would remain on areas that addressed the question of capability.

He argued that the planning commission should however fight for the implementation of recommendations around education, health and environmental sustainability.

"But I don't think that there's going to be the kind of debate that says let's drop off some things and let's follow others," he said. "What we need is an accountability framework that allows for implementation to happen differently."

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Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.

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