At a briefing given this week by the National Planning Commission (NPC), now in its third iteration, its deputy chairperson, Professor Tinyiko Maluleke, recognised the lack of progress that has been made with the Commissions flagship initiative, the National Development Plan. It is not as if the NPC itself was ever expected to effect implementation, but given the slow progress on the front, the 3rd NPC has no choice but to focus attention on the weak track record of implementation so far.

Indeed. The body was established as a platform for deliberating around and suggesting policy orientation. Making it happen would be the task of the state and its various social partners. When its first report was published in 2012, it was given a generally favourable reception. At the very least, it signaled that there was a plan. It sent a lot of the right signals (or at least tried to avoid some of the more dreadful ones) and it was conceived by a group of respected South Africans including Trevor Manuel, whose stewardship of the economy won both domestic and international respect, and Cyril Ramaphosa, whose credentials as a constitutional negotiator and businessman lent him a definite sheen at the time. That at least was the sentiment.

The Institute of Race Relations was a lone voice cautioning against excessive optimism about the plan. Much of it was vague on detail. It was uncosted. Its direction was not fundamentally different from what already existed. Then IRR Deputy CEO, Frans Cronje, said of it: ‘Far from heralding a great economic reformation, the NDP at best seeks to tinker with current failed policy interventions. It is non-committal on labour market regulation, proposes increased racial policy requirements for investors, contradicts itself on property rights, and offers no serious reforms on schooling and education policy. In fact, it proposes even more state intervention in the economy, despite all the evidence that such intervention has done more harm than good.’

Whether there has been a real attempt to implement ‘the plan’ is debatable. Bureaucracies tasked with specific functions tend to do what seems best to them. It’s far easier to continue as before with a column on the monitoring & evaluation spreadsheet showing the link to the bigger plan, than to coordinate with other hard-nosed professionals in different departments, design (and respect) interface mechanisms and trade responsibilities with them. ‘Joined-up government’ is a difficult thing to achieve, and it takes a very competent administration to get it done.

‘A plan is only as credible as its delivery mechanism is viable’, the 2012 NDP document read.

This was always the NDP’s fatal flaw. It was based on the idea that South Africa could accelerate growth – and with it development and living standards – through a formidable developmental state. The document went on to say: ‘A developmental state needs to be capable, but a capable state does not materialise by decree, nor can it be legislated or waved into existence by declarations. It has to be built, brick by brick, institution by institution, and sustained and rejuvenated over time. It requires leadership, sound policies, skilled managers and workers, clear lines of accountability, appropriate systems, and consistent and fair application of rules.’ 

True enough; by its own logic, the institutions for fostering development would need to be built. It proposed professionalising the public service, improving oversight and redesigning appointment systems. This was a nearly a decade ago; yet the same issues – exactly the same – have featured regularly from President Ramaphosa since he became president, and indeed, in his State of the Nation Address.

What went wrong?

Last year, the NPC produced an assessment of the progress made on implementing the NDP. Central to its analysis is, again, the question of state capacity. ‘Course-correction’, it states, ‘entails prioritising the building of requisite capacity and capability of the state, in particular implementation capacity (inclusive of policy and planning). The capacity and capability to drive a national development agenda (and therefore to intervene, implement, and learn from experience) is among [the] key defining attributes of developmental states with which South Africa identifies.’

To this end, professionalisation, the limiting of political influence and the upskilling of the public service are proposed. There is even an endorsement of merit: ‘A significant challenge and contradiction that goes against the developmental state aspiration of South Africa identified [sic] is the rejection of meritocracy in the country’s public service.’  In essence, this is what the NDP called for a decade ago, possibly in even more emphatic terms.

What is lacking from both the NDP and the Review is a sense of what has brought us to this point, and why even as the government extolled the NDP as the blueprint for the future, so little has been done to change these circumstances.

One obvious answer is that some of the key dynamics behind governance in South Africa are unexamined, or only fleetingly touched upon. This is a significant shortcoming, as the NDP styles itself as a plan needing the buy-in of all in society.

The review approaches this tangentially by stating: ‘Political and ideological contestations in the state and the governance of the country have made it difficult to achieve the unity of purpose and focus required to undertake and sustain implementation of the Plan.’

Understood correctly, this is an understatement. The prevailing worldview of the ruling African National Congress – which is not even named in either document – simply does not sit comfortably with the sort of state that the NDP envisages. Ideological and political considerations feature far more prominently than the pedestrian concerns of governance or administration. The report is correct that South African officialdom has rejected meritocracy. Sometimes this has been done in very stark terms: in the late 1990s, Maria Rantho, then an ANC parliamentarian, phrased it thus: ‘It is imperative to get rid of merit as the overriding principle in the appointment of public servants’.  Ms Rantho went on work at the Public Service Commission – the NDP would suggest that her views on staffing the state prevailed.

At around the same time, the ruling party was putting in place its cadre deployment strategy. In clear violation of the Constitution, and within its own party sanctums, it sought to politicise the public service. Not only could a meritocratic public service not develop while this was being implemented, but this was always going to become a means for distributing the spoils of power. 

Indeed, on a glance at the minutes of the ANC’s cadre deployment committee obtained by the Zondo Commission, one cannot but be struck by the depth of the institutional damage this is inflicting. The committee was even accepting CVs. Most remarkably (though without causing much surprise), President Ramaphosa defended this practice, and asked the Commission to refrain from criticising it. He exhibited a degree of passion that he has seldom shown elsewhere.

The renowned scholar of African politics, the late Patrick Chabal, once wrote: ‘Despite the formal political structures in place, power transits essentially through the informal sector’. His point, echoed by many others in the field, is that formal institutions on the continent are often used, abused or white-anted in the conduct of realpolitik. This has had enormous repercussions for governance on the continent in terms of institutional resilience and corruption. South Africa has evidently developed its own expression of this, one in which a certain institutionalisation of governance exists – it’s just that some critical parts fall outside the ambit of the formal state.

Until this is properly recognised and these debilitating practices are eliminated and disavowed, a capable state – certainly the model mandated by the Constitution – will be an illusion. The two concepts are utterly incompatible.

Prof Maluleke concluded his statement with the following declaration: ‘When I concluded the NPC’s lekgotla I suggested ten action words which should guide us: Convene. Prioritise. Catalyse. Embed. Institutionalise. Align. Cohere. Coordinate. Implement. Implement. These are the action-words of the third NPC.’

But without the necessary changes to the politics and ideology driving governance in South Africa, this will be futile, and in a decade, the country will remain in its current doldrums. 

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Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.