Walking in the footsteps of a giant
A special partnership has existed since 2014 between the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation, the Wits School of Governance (WSG), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the department of planning, monitoring and evaluation (DPME). Part of this is the OR Tambo Debate Series, which focuses on the implementation of the National Development Plan (NDP), with high-level events already held under this series.
“If we reflect on OR Tambo the man and the attributes that have made him an international leader who has played such a huge role in South Africa, we know he had absolute conviction that the struggle for democracy was just and would be won, through both protest and intense engagement — engaging until you find each other and thus [finding] a solution to whatever the challenges [are],” says Linda Vilakazi, chief executive of the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation.
“We know OR [Tambo] was open to conflicting views and never afraid to hear other opinions. He always believed that through debate and dialogue everyone would reach a better conclusion. Get to know each other and by knowing each other, together we can coexist. However, behind the soft voice, he had a steel backbone of faith and conviction. He also put the ANC and the people of South Africa way ahead of himself and his ego, risking assassination attempts and making so many massive sacrifices in his personal life.
“The debates are titled in his honour as the OR Tambo Debate Series and as part of the expanded collaboration and partnership, the series has grown into not just public debates, but a series of related round tables, deep dives and then more focused and in-depth research projects, to support evidence-based policy development.”
Concurs Professor David Everrat, head of the WSG: “I think we’re very lucky to have three fathers of the nation — Walter Sisulu gets in there too — and multiple mothers! Oliver Tambo was the glue that held everything together.
“Mandela was the icon, a martyr-like figure, while OR had to build the movement, contend with all the challenges of exile, apartheid dirty tricks, internal splits and ructions, death squads, and still simultaneously think through the next steps. The Harare Declaration and Constitutional Guidelines paved the way to negotiations and the current Constitution, and signalled the clarity of strategic thinking that was coming out of exile, driven and crafted by OR.
“The ANC in exile was like life: it had good and bad people, honest and dishonest, the whole gamut of humanity, but while many were demanding action and gratification, OR focused on strategy and thinking. Without a doubt, his work in the 1980s paved the way to peace.”
The National Planning Commission (NPC) was appointed by the President of South Africa Jacob Zuma in May 2010 to draft a vision and the NDP. As part of the process, the NPC released a diagnostic report on the shortcomings and achievements of the country since 1994. This report was welcomed as a constructive assessment and led to the development of the draft national plan in November 2011. The commission consulted widely on this plan, leading to broad support for the long-term vision, and the revised Plan and Vision 2030 was adopted by Cabinet in October 2012.
Despite broad support for the plan, there remain ideological disputes on core issues such as economic drivers, inclusive growth and the approach to development. Many stakeholders are unable to move beyond their entrenched ideological positions to actual implementation.
As a result, the contents remain contested for a range of reasons including it being seen by some as too ambitious, while others consider the plan conservative and not far-reaching enough.
If the NDP is to become a reality, extensive debate on unfolding implementation efforts is required to operationalise the vision to contextual realities and ensure that all social stakeholders are mobilised to achieve outcomes.
In this the year of OR Tambo, it is worth recalling the emphasis that he laid upon honest, vigorous debate, through which all participants emerged with clearer ideas, and open to new options. This is where the WSG and the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation fits in with its Debate Series, which focuses on implementing the NDP and considers the interaction between the stated vision and its institutionalised operation. Universities thrive on debate and governance is at the core of the NDP.
Such dialogue aims to help shift entrenched positions, break frames and enable new perspectives and implementation solutions to emerge. In particular, the debates are intended to explore the implementation viability of the NDP by understanding the implications of the implicit policy choices, sector by sector.
Valuable lessons and experiences from other countries which have successfully or unsuccessfully walked a similar path to South Africa’s can also be extracted through debate. Development and inclusive growth come about as a consequence of appropriate institutions that have been shaped by politics and history. Solid research is required to inform and contextualise debates, so that they focus on substance instead of ideology.
The UNDP plays a crucial role in providing technical knowledge and expertise through bringing international best practice perspectives, as well as funding for the series, while the DPME ensures that recommendations and other outcomes of the series are adequately considered in policymaking circles of government through the key role it plays in monitoring and evaluating the roll-out and implementation of the NDP.
Since its launch, the series has been a resounding success and continues to grow from strength to strength, reaching millions through social media as well as the audience in the room.
In time, a book is planned to draw together key inputs, papers and debates, and reach a different audience, including academics and students, policymakers and others. Investing in the debate series by partners, donors and sponsors not only helps encourage the spirit of debate and dialogue in South Africa, as espoused by OR Tambo, but also helps advance the implementation of the NDP in more concrete and practical ways.
“The WSG is extremely proud to be in partnership with the Oliver and Adelaide Foundation, precisely because of our belief in the values of open debate, disagreement, even argumentation — but resolving this through talking and listening, not the silencing and shouting personal attacks that currently seem to be a hallmark of public life and of university life,” says Everatt.
“We work to try and help advance debate on key topics and also with our partners in the UNDP and government, to create policy dialogue around the NDP, ranging from public debates to detailed round tables of policymakers and academics, where multiple policy angles are debated, discussed, and help shape the policy terrain.
“In doing so we see ourselves as embodying OR’s qualities and applying them to the NDP, for the benefit of all and in particular those affected by poverty and inequality. Our starting point is always, as was his, what can be done for those in poverty. ‘Bottom up’ always provides a very different view than ‘top down’ — or worse, the view from the exclusive deck where the rich hang out.”
Everatt says there is no more pressing issue facing South Africa and the globe than governance, or “more specifically, its absence”.
“It suffers from massive lip service and absent implementation, and is used as paint to cover the cracks through which greedy hands are grabbing public money. As such,[my] being in a position to try and influence elected and professional public servants is an enormous privilege.
“[This involves] the ‘simple’ act of teaching, of supervising, of making people’s brains ache with new knowledge, the absence of easy answers, the need to grapple with both complexity and morality at the same time, so that we produce more ethically sound policies and implementers.
“The WSG occupies a unique niche in this area, by not simply training public officials how to do their job, but in making them think and worry about right and wrong when faced with multiple, competing demands. Governance is about the distribution of power in society, and how those with power are held accountable. I cannot imagine a more relevant space to occupy right now.”