Apparent ignorance might have saved Zwelinzima Vavi from even greater retribution by his erstwhile Cosatu comrades. The trade union federation general secretary's criticism of the National Development Plan (NDP) as an updated version of the 1996 Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) policy might have been even more robust – and, hence, attracted an even harsher response by his detractors – had he known that the NDP's coverage of climate change is painted in Gear's neoliberal colours.
The similarities between the two documents begin with what Professor Jonathan Jansen aptly describes as "symbolic policy". This is policy that, at best, has noble but unrealisable intentions; at worst, it cynically creates the illusion of a strategy with coherent principles and an evidence-led plan of action. In both cases, it serves to reassure the citizenry by inducing the belief that leaders are in control.
Like Gear's broad objectives (growth, employment, redistribution), the NDP's general pronouncements on climate change are hard to fault. It accepts that South Africa will be hard hit by climate change. But the drift into symbolic policy begins almost as soon as the NDP turns to what must be done to meet the challenge, including "co-ordinated planning and investment in infrastructure and services that take account of climate change" and providing "South Africans with access to secure housing, clean water and decent sanitation, and affordable and safe energy".
Pure fantasy takes over in the guiding principles for a transition to an "environmentally sustainable low-carbon economy". Set against the officially recognised dysfunctional state are requirements such as to "address the structural and systemic flaws of the economy … with … boldness, visionary thinking and innovative planning", and to "develop coherent … policy that provides predictable signals, while being simple, feasible and effective".
These and Gear's fantasies have a common parentage: a neoliberalism that limits the state to creating and sustaining business-friendly policies and practices. The NDP does this by:
• Giving primacy to protecting business (while claiming to be responding to the urgency demanded by climate change): "South Africa needs to remain competitive throughout the transition to a low-carbon future"; and
• Making renewable energy sources the basis of the transition to a low-carbon economy but overlooking the example of, for instance, Sasol, which was established and subsidised by the state for strategic purposes, seeing renewable energy as little more than a business opportunity, and thus restricting the state to outsourcing renewable energy at the pace set by the profit-maximising private sector ("The government must create an investment climate that encourages the private sector").
The outcome of all this is that by 2030 a mere 9% of South Africa's energy will be provided by renewables, despite the affirmation that "a low-carbon future is the only realistic option, as the world needs to cut emissions per unit of output by a factor of about eight in the next 40 years".
The need to "create an encouraging investment climate" takes priority over the NDP's good climate-change intentions. "The pace of change is dangerously slow," it acknowledges, and that "threats to the environment are real and growing, driving the world closer to a tipping point. Failure by world leaders to take urgent action … will lead to dire consequences for future generations."
Yet these acknowledgements vanish when it comes to the government's carbon-tax proposal, notwithstanding corporate objections.
The NDP reproduces Gear's investor friendliness by allowing the minerals energy complex to maximise profits by continuing to externalise its social costs. The enormous climate, environmental and health costs of coal permit the NDP to claim that "recent local renewable energy bidding rounds attracted solar prices two or three times that of coal-fired electricity".
As with Gear, job creation is a central aim of the NDP, as reflected in its climate-change provisions. But it does not build in labour intensity as a design requirement in its renewable-energy specifications. The local supply of renewable components, which would create at least some local jobs, is 6% to 9.5% more expensive than imports and thus likely to be circumvented. The primacy given to the competitiveness of South African business and creating a business-friendly environment consigns job creation to the back seat.
Much of this is openly acknowledged by the NDP when it says: "South Africa's quest for a lower carbon-emitting power sector needs to be balanced against the potentially higher costs … that come with new and renewable energy."
This "balancing", however, effectively means ignoring everything the NDP says about the needed gallop to a low-carbon economy and contradicts the firm localisation policy of the department of trade and industry's industrial policy action plan (Ipap) and the department of energy's renewable energy's independent power producer procurement programme.
This type of policy incoherence is underscored further by the government's decision to build a third coal-fired mega-power plant.
Unemployment is a major cause of South Africa's endemic poverty. The NDP sees how the pains of climate change fall unevenly on the poor but this never gets beyond its rhetorical role as symbolic policy.
If the gap between rhetoric and reality is too large, enough people will eventually become aware of the chasm. Then the reassurance of symbolic policy gives way to anger, stoked further by a sense of having been deceived.
It could be said that this anger characterises much of contemporary South Africa. It could even be said that Vavi's suspension is punishment for exposing policy that is no more than symbolic.
Jeff Rudin works at the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) in Cape Town. A longer version of this article appears in the Progressive Economic Network publication, The National Development Plan: Seven Critical Appraisals, published by the AIDC.