Bruce Whitfield: SA’s biggest problem is that we can’t see a positive future
- South Africa is spending too time on short-term patch jobs.
- The National Development Plan needs defibrillation.
- An architect's drawing isn't a guarantee of a good building, but at least it prevents chaos.
The National Development Plan (NDP) was far from perfect. After all, it was the creation of a shared vision of the future – by a committee. It was never going to be universally accepted, nor universally popular. But it provided something South Africa so desperately needed at the time, and needs even more urgently now: a vision of a positive future.
Without it, South Africans are scrambling and fighting over limited resources in the short term. The divisions this creates will continue to haunt our grandchildren decades from now.
The NDP set a range of goals for South Africa to achieve by the year 2030. In some respects it was bold and visionary, in others, a little wishy-washy. It was meant to be a document that each of us could use to drive the change we wanted to see. Created under the watchful eye of former finance minister Trevor Manuel, some of South Africa’s smartest people grappled with the broad-brush strokes of the multiplicity of issues facing South Africa.
Manuel became a sought-after speaker on the issues it raised and the possibilities it presented. Occasionally, when it suited a speechwriter, the NDP would find its way into a government ministers’ speech. But as it turns out, the Zuma administration which had commissioned the plan never really bought into it. Watching testimony from the State Capture enquiry it’s not hard to see why. Too many members of that administration were far too busy with self-enrichment for a small matter like the upliftment of a country to distract them.
The President needs to get the plan dusted off. It needs to be re-invigorated, its weak points ironed out, and its positives amplified. It just needs to be defibrillated.
It also needs a credible champion with the political will and clout to ensure that ministers actively work toward its goals. Rope in business, which after years of living ostrich-like with its head in the sand, has finally woken up to the fact that you can’t operate world-class businesses in a dysfunctional society in perpetuity.
Some business leaders are saying as much. Recently Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko told delegates at a big ICT conference in Hermanus that policymakers needed to anticipate what future problems should be and look at regulation holistically.
He was speaking particularly about the ICT sector, but its comments are applicable across the economy.
The lack of a big strategic vision and the absence of serious, possibly unachievable goals, means the “bumble-along” scenario painted by many of SA’s best thinkers on the future becomes the pervasive vision for the country in which individuals increasingly focus purely on self-enrichment and self-preservation rather than participating in a long-term shared future.
That is the reason the detail of the mining charter needs to be worked out to create an environment in which investors can plan for the long-term rather than be constantly looking back at messy patchwork of botched regulation and poorly thought out policy. It’s the reason that a blueprint on land needs to be thrashed out and resolved so that farmers, financiers, and anyone associated with formal agriculture, can continue to invest in productive land to ensure food security – rather than an apparently hap-hazard set of fake promises destined to only breed resentment and ultimately disaster for not only property rights but the Constitution, and thus a sustainable business environment.
No architects’ drawings promise a hassle-free build, or the delivery of a project on time or within budget. But at least there is a plan that can constantly be referred to and adapted to changing circumstances. Right now South Africa feels like a piece of urban wasteland which has been converged upon by every bad bakkie builder you have ever engaged, all seeking to make a quick buck by throwing up their part of the structure without foundations and with nothing connecting their part of the structure to any other.
It’s a recipe for rising damp, persistent leaks, and finger pointing and resentment.
South Africa needs some building plans, and a strong social compact, to move forward.
Bruce Whitfield is a multi-platform award winning financial journalist and broadcaster.
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