Will the National Planning Commission Survive ANC Politics?

By Saliem Fakir · 17 Feb 2010

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Picture: IMF
Picture: IMF

The need for a national planning body that plans for a longer horizon goes without saying. Planning has to involve an understanding of the present, what is needed in the future as well as what conditions prevail in the future that may affect what needs to be done now.

In this regard, the NPC Revised Green Paper talks of a grand visioning exercise called Vision 2025. Let’s hope this is not just another grand plan with many words and no legs.

The basis of the NPC is the recognition that we can’t have everything. The trade-off between one developmental path versus another will have to be made and it will also have to take into account the fact that state resources are limited, and that state capacity varies both in competency and effectiveness. Indeed, choices will have to be made and tough ones at that too.

Planning is not a fixed process. It is something that evolves and should be viewed as a working model that must change with time. Our own NPC evolved out of the last years of the Mbeki era and involved the study of other national planning commissions, especially the planning commission of India, which has been in existence for decades.

India’s commission is primarily focused on economic development. Ours, as it is to be understood, will involve a much wider array of areas such as the economy, social services and environmental issues.

China also has a planning commission and it is a powerful body. Known as the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), it reports directly to the State Council. It, too, is focused on economic development and its power lies in the fact that the State Council works closely with it as well as directing other state agencies. It has both a policy and planning function and works by identifying discrete areas of focus in plans that have five-year terms. Its ambit of work covers the macro-economy, economic restructuring, strategic and major construction projects, energy (including managing the state’s strategic petroleum reserve) and interventions in key sectors such as industry, agriculture and the rural economy.

Despite China being an authoritarian state, the workings of policy are very consultative. Both India and China (the latter to a greater extent) have succeeded because they have tended to maintain focus and not become too grand in their vision, but deal with concrete and achievable things.

The South African NPC Green Paper, however, burdens the NPC with too wide an agenda. This can be very tempting. But, this attempt to create an omnivorous policy and plan may just be the undoing of the NPC.

The point here is to get to the crux of matters. The Green Paper is full of a list of things. All of which are important, but some more than others, and some requiring more desperate action than others.

Given the controversy surrounding the initial formulation of the NPC, the current proposal for the NPC has effectively reduced the entity to a super policy think-tank that frames planning within the Presidency. Whether it will do the plans itself is still open to question, but for now, it seems it will merely set the framework.

How effective the NPC is depends on internal ANC dynamics and the perception of ideological taint with which Manuel and his team of twenty Commissioners are received. COSATU, one of the alliance partners, has already attacked the design of the NPC as being too weighted towards technocrats and experts.

Then there are the Commissioners themselves and how they relate to each other. The NPC can easily descend into an ego-fest rather than a creative consortium. Or worse, the best brains dish out the same old tropes and can’t go beyond their pet subjects.

If the NPC has to be the place for thought leadership then these Commissioners had better think “out of the box.”

The Commissioners themselves (whose names will be announced at the end of March) will have to have an ideal mix as it goes in our rainbow nation: the right mix of colours, expertise and ideological views matter.

Nothing will be perfect. There won’t be an ideal twenty, as somebody is bound to squeal that this one or that one is not fit for the post. Manuel will have his hands full. Neither is it likely to be his decision entirely. Everybody from parliament to COSATU to the SACP and cabinet will want to have a say over who gets on and who is kept out.

Ultimately, the challenge for the NPC may not lie within itself, but outside itself.

It remains mired in political controversy with the ANC and alliance partners getting bogged down in personalities as much as they do in ideas. And pet hate figures tend to get all the attention, rather than the ideas.

This proclivity for the inane downgrades serious policy debate to ugly point scoring. And the government, lately, has shown a greater propensity for dirty rhetoric rather than decisiveness in policy making.

The NPC will have to wade through the political maelstrom of cabinet and over-protective Ministers who already had a rousing bruise with Manuel when he was appointed Minister within the Presidency in charge of national planning.

Regrettably, the way in which policy is usually caught up in seemingly endless squabbles threatens to drag the NPC into the same muddy waters. Ministries are notorious for creating their own fiefdoms. How the NPC, as one fiefdom, will gain influence over disparate others, will be an interesting prospect to watch.

Whatever the political turns and twists, the challenge for the NPC will remain decisiveness and urgency. The perception out there is that the current administration lacks decisiveness and prefers literally and figuratively to dance about.

The result is decision paralysis through indecision. The policy-making froth, very high up, has too many chiefs stirring and very few foot soldiers working. Perhaps it is the nature of the post-Polokwane configuration of different interests that has brought this about. Who knows?

The one area that this is most visible in is economic policy and planning. What exactly is our economic policy and path? It certainly can’t just be about inflation targeting and the rather crass debate on nationalisation.

All of these are mere instruments and interventions, but they need to be built around a clear economic vision. Otherwise there is a lot of noise with no effect.

Despite all these conjectures, planning needs to gain ascendancy in this country. It has to be a tool to prioritise development interventions and mobilise the requisite budgets behind it. It is too vital a function to be lost in the mire of personality politics and dirty rhetoric.

But perhaps in South Africa’s case, doing less is actually doing more. The NPC should re-visit its list of priorities and ambit of focus.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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Rory Short
22 Feb


Unfortunately it seems that many of those who are politically active within our society accord jockeying for personal political influence as their topmost priority. Anything else, if it is recognised at all, comes a very poor second. Acting in the best interests of the whole of South Africa certainly falls within this later category. Thus I would be very pleasantly surprised if the NPC actually proves useful to the country.

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