Zuma's Cabinet and Misplaced Fears About the National Planning Commission

By Saliem Fakir · 12 May 2009

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Picture: Albert Bredenhann
Picture: Albert Bredenhann

President Zuma’s reconciliatory tone and the selection of his cabinet is not just symbolism, but a genuine attempt to comfort his critics and intended to assure them that he is capable of being a good, if not better president than his predecessor.

One thing is plain; he hasn't surrounded himself with "yes" men and women, but with people who are known to have minds of their own and who will fight for every inch of policy and strategy.

Some vocal left figures that mounted vociferous attacks on Mbeki's economic policy have been handed key ministries and a chance to prove their worth.

In his inaugural speech, Zuma emphasised the importance of delivery, especially during this period of global economic downturn. He also pointed to the need for ensuring a sound delivery system.  The co-ordination of all of this will fall under the auspices of the National Planning Commission housed within the Presidency and backed up by a performance, monitoring, evaluation and administration unit.

Some political commentators have heckled the idea of a planning commission because they hark back to images of central command and control. The truth is that the idea of the commission is not a Zuma era creation – in fact the process of studying other planning commissions, like that of India, began during the last year or so of the Mbeki era.

Even Blair introduced a strong policy and planning role for his period, now continued in the Gordon Brown period, without referring to it as a planning commission. The main purpose of which was to ensure policy coherence.

Much of the policy co-ordination and planning took place at No.10 Downing Street - the Prime Minister's office.

Too much is being read into the word "planning." In fact, its role is more one of foresight, co-ordination, anticipating vulnerabilities and ensuring more enhanced policy debates. Its role is strategic and necessary, especially for a country with limited resources.

As Arthur Lewis, a Nobel Laureate for Economics from the Caribbean Islands, in a book titled, The Principles of Economic Planning (1969) noted, it is not as if no economy is planned.

Some responses to the new planning commission have been spuriously reactionary. It is well known that the The current US economy is being meticulously planned out of its crisis. Lewis noted that both right and left governments in history have always either used the State to over-plan or under-plan.

There are no fixed solutions or blueprints. Planning needs have to fit their context and be adjusted accordingly.

If that weren't the case, the US would head for collapse. It is clear that no government can operate without a strategy and plan. Neither can any corporation nor firm. Critical questions should revolve around what form the plan would take, what it would like to see as desired outcomes and how it will be executed.

As Arthur Lewis, would remind us, "...planning by direction is much inferior to planning by inducement." It is the balance between the two that must be debated internally within the planning commission and other line ministries.

It is not as if we can do without a co-ordinated strategy and plan against which targets can be measured and performance assessed. However, we are unlikely to have 'planning by direction' like the old Soviet model.

The main complaint against Mbeki was that the Presidency, under his watch, was primarily driving policy without proper, as well as in-depth consultation and debate with Luthuli House. Planning was being done in the absence of ANC oversight.

The second, was that planning was subject to austerity measures driven entirely on the basis of fiscal policy and in which the Treasury had become the de facto planning commission -- giving the Minister of Finance, seemingly, far more power than the other ministries.

Despite this, Zuma has given Manuel the job. No doubt, the media and markets will be appeased and remain mum that the government intends anything ominous -- their man is in charge.

Manuel brings years of experience, having been the longest serving finance minister in the world. When he was minister, he effectively had influence over economic strategy, fiscal policy, budget control and approval of ministerial plans.

Manuel, then, had somewhat of a free hand, but this is no longer the case.

The default powers of the former finance ministry have been trimmed because the role of the finance ministry will be much more focused on budget and the management of state finances – this limited role seems best suited for Pravin Gordhan who showed himself apt and quite capable during his term as tax supremo.

Economic planning will go to the Ministry of Economic Development under Ebrahim Patel, an experienced unionist with a long career in union politics and policymaking.

He is a key insider for the SACP and COSATU, with another, Rob Davies, handling trade and industry affairs. These two areas have always been important for the SACP and COSATU, around which much acrimony over policy direction developed during the Mbeki era, right up to the build up of the Polokwane Conference.

Now they are in charge and have a say over key policy areas. There is likely to be much more focus on microeconomic issues, which was a glaring gap in the last administration. Patel will be expected to bring macro and microeconomics closer to each other.

Manuel will come face-to-face with his old union detractors and play more of a process management role, while having to fight through issues, especially when it comes to economic policy.  He won’t be given a free hand.

This is nothing new, as Pippa Green's biography of Trevor Manuel testifies; his fight with the unions about macroeconomic policy goes back to long before he was Minister of Finance.

Manuel was always of the opinion that the most powerful and organized lobbies should not dictate government policy aimed at serving a wider constituency. Some may cynically argue that Manuel, in distancing himself from union influence, ended up being too business, IMF and World Bank friendly.

He is no doubt up to the job and willing to head-butt where it is needed.

The primary aim of the planning commission is to set key policy principles and a framework within which various ANC led government departments and provincial administrations will have to work, ensuring the alignment of their programmes. It is a powerful policy making position.

There will be a stronger look at synergy and this in turn will influence budgetary allocations and spend. The planning commission, too, will have to co-ordinate with the policymaking machinery inside Luthuli House.

There is another reason why the planning commission need not be feared.

Remember, the idea of a super-cabinet, proposed by the SACP just before the Polokwane conference did not eventually win the day within the ANC's national executive.

For detractors, it had all the potential trappings of a Soviet style central planning down to the number of bread roles that bakeries should produce or widgets that factories were going to manufacture.

This was plainly just smearing by critics from the right and demonising, as even the SACP's proposals were mere concepts and not details of how the planning commission and super-cabinet should work.

The idea of a super-cabinet was abandoned, but not the idea of a planning commission. There are good grounds for opposing the super-cabinet model because it would erode collegial relations and work against the ANC tradition of collective responsibility.

It would create a hierarchy of power that would be unnecessary. Instead, there will be Ministers in charge of co-ordinating various clusters.

There is no more need for better planning and co-ordination than now because jobs are being lost and the fiscus has very little room to manoeuvre, given financial constraints. We have to be more efficient and effective with policy implementation and planning will be a key tool to achieve this.

The details of how the commission will work will emerge as time goes along. The planning commission, though, will set the medium term framework priorities. These will be set by the Presidency in consultation with the cabinet.

In any case, it should not be the case where citizens just wait for plans and government execution while doing nothing. As the recent Dinokeng Scenarios argue -- to give effect to the scenario of “Walking Together,” requires an active citizenry.

This is always a good counter-balance because we can't just wait for plans from the top.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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Helene P
12 Jun

Zuma's Planning Commission

A very enlightening article, thank you very much. Lots of issues to think about and follow up on. Waiting till the government makes a mistake is not very helpful. One must know how the machinery works in order to understand where it grips when it does. Wish the leading media would do so...

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