South Africa is suffering from a chronic illness. Why is she so sick and what are the root causes of her ailments? The government-appointed National Planning Commission (NPC) seeks to provide some answers in its recently released Diagnostic Overview report by taking "a broad, cross-cutting, independent and critical view of South Africa."
Cyril Ramaphosa, NPC Deputy Chairperson
Deputy Chairperson of the Commission, Cyril Ramaphosa, and head of the NPC Secretariat, Kuben Naidoo, presented their findings at a forum held at the Gordon Institute of Business Science last week. The discussion provided a sobering examination of some of the country's structural defects, but was also defined by a spirit of optimism and frankness.
As stated in the NPC report (available online), the mandate of the Commission is "to help define the South Africa we seek to achieve in 20 years time and to map out a path to achieve those objectives. The commission is expected to put forward solid research, sound evidence and clear recommendations for government." [p.1]
Ramaphosa reiterated these objectives by highlighting the NPC's broad consultative nature and its attempt to achieve consensus on where the country is going. "We are consulting at a fairly deep level," he said, "through various forms and structures of society, from business, to NGOs, trade unions, religious organisations, you name them."
Ramaphosa spoke of the need for a guiding vision similar to the one that propelled the constitutional negotiations in the early 1990s, of which he was a principal player. "We need a vision statement for SA that when you read it, you can't help getting goosebumps," he said.
Roelf Meyer conducted the debate
According to the report, South Africa faces an overwhelming array of problems. These include low employment, poor education and a health care system struggling to cope with "a massive disease burden." The difficulties experienced today are the result of an enduring apartheid legacy coupled with poor policy planning and shoddy implementation post-1994.
The SA economy is also too resource-intensive claims the NPC, making it susceptible to capricious global commodity cycles [p.17]. "South Africa is a typical colonial economy," said Ramaphosa, "It is far too extractive in nature." Diversification is sorely needed to make the SA economy more agile, he argued.
Another focus of the report was on urban geography where there are "spatial challenges that continue to marginalise the poor" and infrastructure that is inadequate [p.19]. For example, poor South Africans are typically located on the margins of country's major cities and are forced to rely on expensive, unsafe and unreliable forms of transport in order to make a living.
These and other factors entrench the existing status quo of low growth and an unequal distribution of resources and wealth. In fact, reducing inequality is one of the core objectives of the National Planning Commission [see p.26].
Kuben Naidoo, head of the NPC Secretariat
Kuben Naidoo noted that one of the principal challenges facing SA was policy instability in the public sector [p.22]. With every new new minister comes changes in policy, he said, making it difficult to sustain long-term public policy programmes. Naidoo cited the Eastern Cape as an example, where in the 17 years since 1994 there have been a total of 14 MECs for Education. This turnover is far too high, he said.
Add to this the widespread presence of corruption and you have what amounts to a cumulative assault on the legitimacy of the state and its capacity to deliver services. Corruption, explains the NPC, "is particularly damaging to good relations between citizens and the state. It undermines confidence in the democratic system by enabling the better off to exert undue influence over the policy process or obtain preferential access to services." [p.25].
Responding to criticism that the NPC would ultimately be hampered by political constraints, Ramaphosa, who is also a member of the ANC National Executive, was as unequivocal as he could be. "We [in the NPC] will deal more with policy than with politics." he said. "We have to go beyond party interests. We are behoven to SA Inc, and not the interests of the ANC."
Another critical view expressed on the night was that the public consultative process had not gone far or wide enough. One audience member pointed out that the survey had only been conducted online, and in English, vastly narrowing the number of citizens who could participate. Ramaphosa's response was to commit to extending this process further - and in multiple tongues.
Returning to the medical metaphor, Ramaphosa took a cautiously optimistic view: "This patient walks, it is still alive," he said, "This patient is not terminally ill - it can be cured - we just need to find the right remedies."
The patient will find out what those remedies will be when the NPC presents its final plan to cabinet in November 2011. Whether the executive will be either willing or able to implement this plan remains to be seen - and therein lies the Commission's greatest challenge.
Photos: David Ansara