How do you turn a broad, longterm vision into a government programme? A few bits at a time. What President Jacob Zuma will say in tonight’s state of the nation address only he and those around him know. But the National Development Plan (NDP) produced by the National Planning Commission will loom large, even if he does not directly mention it very often.
The NDP has become a key theme in African National Congress (ANC) documents — the resolutions passed at its Mangaung conference refer to it repeatedly.
The ANC has decided the document is a useful vehicle for addressing the twin pressures on it and the government, which were highlighted last year.
On the one hand, last year convinced the ANC and the government that much more must be done about poverty and inequality.
The obvious trigger was Marikana and the farm strikes that spilled into this year — but they were hardly the only sign that an economy that offers more to most South Africans must become a government priority.
On the other hand, the markets’ reaction to Marikana was not the only evidence that alienating business sentiment is costly.
None of this is new: the key challenge for the government since 1994 has been how to deal with inherited inequalities without losing the confidence of the wealthy and skilled.
But last year brought this home in graphic fashion, forcing the government to look squarely at dilemmas that have been sidelined for years.
The NDP seems to offer a solution, which is why we will hear about it tonight, directly or indirectly.
The NDP is not, as much commentary would have us believe, a clear blueprint.
It is what it was always meant to be — a vision for the next couple of decades that distills the consensus among commissioners drawn from a variety of constituencies with differing interests.
Because it is not meant to be implemented immediately, it deals with a wide range of issues and is long and comprehensive. No government anywhere would be able to implement all of it in anything less than a couple of decades.
Because it is the product of consensus between a range of interests and perspectives, it fudges some issues and, as at least one visiting analyst has pointed out, sometimes contradicts itself. Anyone who reads it — and most of those who extol it have not — will agree with some parts and reject others: there is probably no one who wants the entire package implemented.
None of this is a problem. But it does mean that the NDP is more the start of a conversation than a plan of action.
It is meant to act as a trigger for negotiation — not the type in which people sit in a ballroom for three days and sign a declaration, but one in which interests debate, compromise and hopefully reach some common understandings. This is its attraction to the government and the ANC.
By endorsing the plan, they are taking action. But because it must be negotiated — and is very popular in the business world — they can do this without antagonising current and future investors.
But it is also why tonight’s address will not take us forward if Zuma simply endorses the NDP. If that is all he does, it will be unclear what he is supporting.
Progress will require him to say which of its many ideas his government wants to put on the table.
Very broadly, the government can react to the twin pressures in one of two ways. They do not exclude each other and so it could opt for a bit of both.
First, it can take the “Lula” route, emulating the second term of Brazilian Workers Party president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Just as many in business champion the NDP without reading it, many in labour eulogise Lula’s programme without knowing much about it.
Its key feature, as a Brazilian colleague explained on a panel last week, is that it was explicitly based on avoiding a fight with business and the affluent: Lula made it clear he believed it was possible to reduce inequality and poverty without taking on the rights and prerogatives of the economic elite.
If Zuma’s administration wants to go that route, it would have to concentrate not on policy change but on making the government work better for the poor.
There is plenty of room for that: great gains could be made through ensuring that schools, clinics and the residential areas where the poor live work a lot better and that people are supported by programmes that really address poverty. And there is much in the NDP that tonight’s address could use to make good on that commitment.
The NDP’s approach to better government does not only stress better public management — a key is that the government must become more accountable to citizens.
So, if Zuma does want to use the NDP to make the government work better, particularly for poor people, we would hear him talk about ways in which citizens, particularly those who are ignored now, will be taken more seriously and will gain more of a say.
But Zuma’s administration might need to go beyond improving government service and seek changes to the way in which business is done here if we are to build a sustainable future. This is the second option — to negotiate change with business, labour and other interests. Again, sections of the NDP could be crucial.
The ANC clearly believes change is needed. Both Zuma and ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa have urged business to take inequality more seriously, while ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe has demanded a say in mine restructuring. But neither the government nor the governing party have begun negotiating.
To do that, they would have to lay concrete proposals on the table. Telling business to take the poor more seriously is not bargaining — it is pleading.
Negotiating would entail spelling out what the government wants to do about the problem and inviting business and other interests to respond.
The NDP has no shortage of ideas for change, which could be negotiated. But the government is not negotiating until it says which of them are its priorities. So far, its only attempt to spell out what it wants to negotiate was a meeting with agriculture at which Zuma put the NDP’s ideas on land redistribution on the table.
If the government is taking the NDP as seriously as it says it is, tonight’s address is an opportunity to begin bargaining on our future. If it contains a list of specific NDP proposals that the government hopes to adopt, we will know that the negotiations have begun.
Until the ANC signalled that it was adopting the NDP, the document had almost mythical status: all that was needed, we were told, was for the government to adopt it and all would be well. That was never so: the issue was always not whether the government endorsed the NDP, but which sections it backed and how serious it was about its support for them.
Tonight’s address should give us the first answer. If it goes no further than generalities expressing support for the NDP, the government has not yet worked out what it wants to negotiate. If we hear specifics, the bargaining, which offers our best hope of progress, will have begun.
- Steven Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg. This article was published on Business Day.