Wanted: One vision for a better future

The new members of the National Planning Commission will soon be appointed. The women and men who will take over from the members of the first commission have a difficult task. It produced the National Development Plan and handed it to Parliament in August 2012. What does the new commission do for an encore?

If the plan was an epoch-making document – and it was – the second commission carries a great burden of expectation. South Africans will look to it for answers on implementation. The first commission was appointed in 2010 and it has been almost three years since the plan was presented to Parliament; there may be a need to show the public evidence of outcomes.

These, unfortunately, lie beyond the commission’s scope. Individual government departments are responsible for implementing the plan. There are still widespread misperceptions about the role of the commission, even among public servants. Addressing these misperceptions will be among the new commission’s first-order priorities.

The new commissioners must be seen to represent a break with the often overstated view that the government makes sound policies but doesn’t implement them.

Outstanding work has been done on some of the social issues covered in the plan, yet the public knows little of what the commission and its technical support team in the department of planning, monitoring and evaluation have been doing since 2012. This communications gap has to be closed not with platitudes or spin, but with demonstrable achievements.

At least five major issues require the attention of the new commissioners. In no particular order, the first is establishing a social contract or compact, the second is professionalising the public service, the third is strengthening the commission’s technical support, the fourth is reflecting on a theory of change, and the fifth is developing a more effective communications strategy.

Defining a theory of change may help settle the other issues. Soon after the National Development Plan was delivered to Parliament in 2012 concern was expressed, mainly by public intellectuals and commentators, that the plan lacked a “theory of change”. This may seem rather abstract, perhaps incongruous with the practicalities of day-to-day policymaking. But it is important because it may help answer the ex ante question of what, exactly, it is that has to change in South Africa. A grounded theory of change should help provide a clear answer.

It will have to tackle ideology, too. The 2014 election showed us that at least 80% of the electorate supports parties that endorse the plan, but the large, restive and influential labour constituency seems not to care about the broad consensus behind the plan.

There is a need to get past the political obstacles to the deep and wide transformation required. This can be achieved if the theory of change provides a programme of action everyone can agree on. There is no need to return to the vision, the core values or objectives of the plan – almost everyone agrees on these. There is a need, however, to leverage the gains that have been made and not start all over again. The new commission may have to start somewhere in the middle.

Still, as things stand, there are too many political tensions between the plan’s vision and groups aligned with the ruling party, mainly pockets in Cosatu. There are overt tensions between the ANC and groups such as the Economic Freedom Fighters and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. This situation introduces new tensions and reproduces existing tensions between labour and capital, labour and government, and capital and the state.

It is, in some ways, the same old story: business does not trust the government, the government does not trust business – and labour trusts neither. All the more reason for a grounded theory of change to be presented boldly, to make it clear whether South Africa will continue to be a liberal capitalist country, with selective nods to social democracy, or whether it will become socialist.

In practical terms, a theory of change should help us see the difference between rupture and continuity. For instance, there has to be agreement on the “move all whites off the land and give it to indigenous people and fuck compensation” position on land reform, and managing the transition and its contingent factors, especially food security.

In short, a theory of change may help us to tap into the conflict between the haves and the have-nots to spark creativity and innovation. A coherent theory of change should also provide conceptual and material bases for social cohesion, and a general collective will to pull in the same direction. Once this is settled, South Africa could move collectively towards the stated objectives. At the moment, South Africa is sodden with conflict and tension in almost every area of society, with inordinately high levels of distrust among the population.

Yet conflict need not be destructive. It can serve transformation in new and innovative ways. At the moment, the “sides” in the multiplicity of conflicts – which, at any moment, can be over notions of race, ethnicity, tribe, class or entitlements – seem fairly ossified. Breaking these positions seems impossible.

Effective planning, however, is precisely about taking the resources available – and using the conflict and tensions in society – to create common ground and a better future. When the idea of a social contract was raised in 2013, one excitable trade union leader frothed through his dents du bonheur (gap-toothed smile) and dismissed it as an outlandish conspiratorial plot. It was hard to convince him that some of the most successful societies in history have achieved high levels of prosperity, wellbeing and social cohesion through social compacts. Such compacts are especially important in societies with high levels of conflict and distrust.

One outcome of a social contract would be to create new institutions or to strengthen existing institutions to mediate conflict and emerge with innovative and broadly accepted, implementable agreements. A new social contract (the Constitution being the first and ultimate social contract) would balance the aspirations of groups and individuals. It would have to preserve the rights of individual citizens to enjoy multiple affiliations.

Agreeing on a common path to a common destiny does not mean that people have to stop believing they are Christian, Muslim or Xhosa, or that cultural preferences should be abandoned.

An effective social contract can help move us away from inequality and towards a more inclusive society. If we know where we want to be, what type of society we want to live in and what political-economic organisation is required to achieve our goals, the outcomes should be realised. This is the key: if people do not see measurable change in their life-world, all the policies and plans will amount to nothing. In two or three decades we will be right back where we are today – in a very dark and ugly place.

The planning commission will not work, though, without a highly professional and inspired technical infrastructure. There is a need for a planning branch in government that is dynamic and innovative and not beholden to political office bearers, and definitely not one that is dissolved into the bland mediocrity of the state bureaucracy.

This requires a fine balance between a dedicated technical support team that is allowed to think independently and one that can provide support to the commission. Such a structure has to avoid stolid bureaucratic processes as well as the methodological straitjacket of consultant-speak and practice. Not everything can be worked out on a spreadsheet.

At the same time, evidence has to be used in policymaking – qualitative and quantitative evidence. These are the Scylla and Charybdis of the commission’s secretariat. Navigating a passage between them will be tough, but it can be done – if it is provided with authority and funding and is encouraged to break out of debilitating bureaucracy. At present, the department in which planning is situated is in a desperate state. Staff shortages make it impossible for dedicated and hard-working public servants, and there are many, to do their jobs effectively.

There are also obstacles to more efficient workflows. Accountability and thoroughness are defining features of effective bureaucracies. Collins Chabane, the minister of monitoring and evaluation who died recently, as well as Cabinet ministers Pravin Gordhan and Jeff Radebe and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, have all made forceful statements about professionalising the public service and making systems work better. Procurement and general maladministration need attention.

As the previous planning minister, Trevor Manuel, said, the plan will fail if the “engine room” of change is not working at its peak. If public servants believe they have a right to be obstructionist and obstreperous, we will not move ahead. Underperformance and a refusal to accept responsibility or to take instruction or guidance from a “non-African” are not signs of liberation.

There is an urgent need for public servants to identify their roles in the implementation of the plan. The plan aims to increase prosperity, wellbeing, human security, social stability and progress, engendering trust among the population and securing an intergenerational transfer of the gains from an expanded political economy. We need to create jobs, reduce poverty and inequality, and invest in the people by improving the quality of education, healthcare and community safety.

Achieving these objectives is, essentially, out of the hands of the commission. It will depend on the public service. Herein lies the challenge.

Ismail Lagardien is a political economist and writer with experience in journalism, policy and academia. He worked in the secretariat of the National Planning Commission until the end of March

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