Tuesday, July 19, 2011

NPC Diagnosis: SA serious, but not critical

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

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Looking back at Tunisia and Egypt

The dramatic changes that continue to sweep through the Middle East, described variously as the “Arab Awakening”, the “Arab Spring” and the “Jasmine Revolution”, have shown the true depth of democratic sentiments in a region commonly associated with authoritarianism and limited civil liberties.

The speed and coordination with which dictators have been brought to their knees is the result of a unique confluence of factors: a crisis of raised expectations caused by increased economic opportunities (without concomitant political rights); access to information and the organising power of social networks, and; schisms within the dominant elites in these countries.

However, with the current crises in Libya, Syria and Yemen, the continuation of this trend has become progressively bloodier and more disorderly. It is therefore sobering to remember where it all started - in Tunisia and Egypt - where the genesis of the Awakening was both peaceful and profoundly democratic.

In a recent forum held at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), journalists and analysts sought to explore the origins, future implications and multiplier effects of these two upheavals.

Naeem Jeenah

Academic and activist, Naeem Jeenah chose to reference Vladimir Lenin in his address, whose words he believed aptly reflected the contemporary situation: “There are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen,” Jeenah quoted.

“All of us should feel privileged to live in these weeks when decades are happening," Jeenah said, "when we are seeing lifetimes unfold in front of us in the course of a few months.”

Jeenah was also of the view that too much credit had been given to the mobilization of the middle classes through the internet and social networking tools, and not enough on the role of existing trade union structures, which he claimed were also used as platforms to organise politically.

“In Egypt, we knew that the writing was on the wall for [Hosni] Mubarak and the state when workers in some of the defence industry companies came out on strike,” he said. These movements, he argued, have renewed the belief in the power of people’s mass action to affect meaningful change.

Jean Jacques Cornish

EWN reporter, Jean Jacques Cornish commented on the Tunisian “contagion effect” that had spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Djibouti, Sudan, Jordan and of course, Libya.

Speaking about the lack of adequate forecasting before these events took place, Cornish remarked: “I’ve just come back from Paris where an official driving African policy gave one of those charming Gallic shrugs and admitted, ‘We simply had no idea.’”

This, as information came to light of the French government’s offer to train Tunisian riot police in crowd control tactics as the uprising unfolded. Cornish observed that the French have made an art form of the notion that in international relations a country doesn’t have friends, it has interests.

Not only had Western powers failed to predict the changes in Tunisia, he argued, but had also tacitly tolerated Ben Ali’s authoritarianism for the sake of stability - while preaching democracy elsewhere.

On this point Naeem Jeenah was also scathing, pointing out that both Tunisia and Egypt, with their high growth rates and relatively open economies, were regarded as model states by the IMF and the World Bank before 2011. Even the Mo Ibrahim Index of good governance ranked Tunisia and Egypt eighth and ninth respectively. “I really think we should chuck that list out the window right now,” Jeenah scoffed.

Tom Wheeler

Looking at the sustainability of democracy after the uprisings, former South African ambassador Tom Wheeler observed that many have questioned whether democracy is indeed possible in the Muslim world. He cited two examples where this is most definitely the case: Indonesia and Turkey.

Looking specifically at Turkey, which was an authoritarian state for most of the time that he was posted there (1997-2001), Wheeler noted that under the mildly Islamist government elected in 2002 there have been several significant steps taken towards democratic consolidation.

For one, the role of the military in state affairs has been drastically reduced. Moreover, in its attempt to join the European Union, the Turkish government has also had to conform more rigorously to international human rights standards and move away from the authoritarian secularism so similar to Ben Ali’s Tunisia and Mubarak’s Egypt.

“Although you have this Islamist government it is also more democratic, it is more responsive to the people, it is trying to deal with the Kurdish issue, and so on,” he said.

“So there is a role model in the Middle East for the countries that are now going through this enormous process of change,” he said.

An uncertain but exciting future awaits these two catalysts of the revolutionary epidemic in the Middle East. Both Tunisia and Egypt have entered an exciting and dynamic period, but their future rests on the establishment of transparent, robust institutions and the rule of law. Only this combination will ensure a lasting social contract for the new order.

Photos: David Ansara