/ 29 September 2023

Is Ramaphosa and Manuel’s feted economic plan delayed or dead?

Old Mutual board chairperson Trevor Manuel has some conditions for twice-fired CEO Peter Moyo if he plans to go to the company's offices.
Trevor Manuel 1996 – 2009. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Of Cyril Ramaphosa’s 28-member cabinet, we can hazard a guess that not many have read through the 489 pages of the National Development Plan. The document was adopted by the country in much happier times more than a decade ago, when the economy was buoyant and the investment world in love with emerging market economies in the face of a crippling European sovereign debt crisis and a still slow recovery across from the US after the subprime housing crisis in 2008. That’s not to say that the rest of the country read the plan, either; there’s something to be said about brevity when communicating a national plan, a complaint for another day.

It took three years to put together the document by commissioners such as Miriam Altman and former AngloGold CEO Bobby Godsell, with Ramaphosa acting as deputy chair. It was welcomed by most political parties and the “amorphous” markets, as the country’s longest-serving finance minister, Trevor Manuel, once called them. The feedback on the plan, driven by the self-same Manuel, was that it was ambitious but broadly achievable within two decades to fundamentally deal with the structural fault lines in the economy. 

It was then left to a Jacob Zuma administration, not renowned for its studious nature, to take ownership of the plan and govern accordingly. But we now know that in his second, desperate term as country president, a corrupt pursuit of influence and wealth were the more prized outcomes. The pursuit of NDP goals such as the transition of the economy into a low-carbon one or the building of a capable developmental state became empty words in verbose speeches. 

In his first term shaped by a pandemic, slow growth, power shortages, SOE decline and a cancerous spread of corruption that has provided fertile ground for organised crime, Ramaphosa hasn’t managed to make much headway in the plan’s 2030 goals. Growth over the past ten years has been at an average of 0.99% annually, compared to a targeted rate of 5.4% GDP growth a year to achieve NDP goals. 

We are nowhere near close.

This week, Mail & Guardian economics editor Sarah Smit reports that ten years on, most of the economic targets set in the plan have not only been missed, but are moving in the wrong direction. 

A review of the plan by the National Planning Commission – tasked with overseeing the economic plan – was released earlier this week in a bungled press conference in Pretoria that was cancelled as its key lieutenants weren’t allowed to share the tale of gloom to gathered reporters. 

Being in election season, the governing ANC in a clearly last-ditch public-relations intervention had no appetite to share the gloomy report card. This is another example of a blurring of the lines between state and party. In essence, the NDP is a government document and not one funded out of Luthuli House.

Embarrassing public relations aside, the country’s failure to move on 2030 targets saps confidence for even the most bullish of South Africa’s prospects. We aren’t moving in the right direction in dealing with our historical imbalances, leaving our young democracy in a precarious position. A change of course is possible, but requires a capable state and fiscal space, a position we aren’t in. Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana is set to remind us of the latter when he delivers his medium-term budget speech. 

Call it austerity, or prudence if you prefer, but our fiscal path defers the NDP goals to another decade, if we are lucky. An incapable state, on the other hand, is its death.