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Trevor’s National Planning Commission jams online

It looks like fun and games: the chairman of the National Planning Commission and other commissioners having a back and forth with South Africans on the NPC’s website. But there’s serious work being done here. On 11 November, the NPC will release its vision statement and plan to the country, and the NPC Jam is part of the public participation process. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

Most people found it hard to believe that minister in the presidency Trevor Manuel was the person sitting at the laptop, answering questions and taking on discussions with people online.

“Most of the first respondents were incredulous that it is actually a Cabinet minister sitting there,” Manuel said.

Since 12pm on Wednesday, Trevor Manuel and other NPC commissioners have been “jamming”.

The skinny on the NPC Jam is that it is an online forum created on the NPC’s website by IBM for people to make submissions on, and debate the diagnostic document. The submissions made on the NPC Jam will be processed and put into consideration during discussions. The NPC will produce a vision statement and plan for 2030, to be released to the nation on 11 November.

The planning commission has set aside 72 hours, beginning on Wednesday, to interact with members of the public on the NPC Jam.

The process was described as “managed” by Manuel. In order to “jam”, people need to register with their real details, like name, place of residence and occupation. The NPC has preselected ten topics for discussion, and under each conversation, there are already many different threads.

Some threads have been opened by commissioners, who pose an open-ended question made to provoke debate.

One such thread was opened by Manuel, who wrote, “[Name redacted] raised a very useful issue about how South Africans think. She wrote, ‘As long as people are just all about grabbing what they are not truly entitled to, breaking laws and not thinking long term, it will be a problem & it will be a sign that we still work against ourselves in the way we think.’ Can we chat about this? Is she correct? How do we change behavior? Is such change necessary for progress?”

According to Manuel, some 7,000 people have already registered, and there were about 2,000 people logged in (and about as many running threads) during the NPC Jam press conference on Wednesday afternoon.

The NPC Jam closes on Saturday at 12pm. After that, the commission will distil ideas raised into main points, and slot those into the discussions they have as they move from the diagnostic to the planning phase. “It is very important that we demonstrate that the ideas that came from jamming were considered,” Manuel said.

This is an easy way for South Africans to participate in the drafting of the vision statement and plan for 2030. Ordinary citizens will have the ear of men and women who are tasked with planning South Africa’s blueprint going forward, outside the obfuscation and frippery of politick.

The planning commission chairman said that the commission was specially formulated so that no commissioner would feel obliged to “protect turf”. Manuel is the only person who is a full-time commissioner – all the others have day jobs. The response that we can expect to get from the commission is different to that of a government department. Manuel said that there was a “strong sense” within the NPC that discussions had to have value. This is not meant to be a talk shop.

“The strength of the commission is that it is a benchmark against which government performance can be measured,” Manuel said.

NPC Jam is not the only way in which the planning commission is accepting comment on the diagnostic document. The NPC is on Facebook and Twitter, and has opened up a fax line as well as a voicemail inbox. It has conducted town-hall meetings in the provinces and also accepts correspondence on the matter.

NPC Jam itself was strongly marketed on university campuses throughout the country.

Manuel urged the media not to treat the 11 November document as “a scoop for the Sunday papers”. He said that rather, the ideas contained in it should be carried forward to all South Africans.  “We’re asking for a different treatment of the subject matter,” he said. “It is important that these ideas are carried forward. The commission is not the final word on these issues, so we need more detailed discussion coming from people.”

Even though the Jam isn’t fool-proof, and is hardly representative of ordinary South Africans, it will provide a good data set that will be representative of the young, fairly urban sections of the country, said Gavin Pieterse a governmental programmes executive at IBM, on the sidelines of the press conference.

Pieterse said that NPC Jam was the first type of programme of its kind ever carried out in Africa or the Middle East. Similar projects have been carried out for other government entities in Europe and the United States.

The national planning commission seems to have done its homework properly on the diagnostic document, and is taking the consultation period seriously. Broadcasting the message almost exclusively through the media is always going to have its problems (although one wonders why the SABC wasn’t used more aggressively), so it’s no surprise that the NPC’s work isn’t receiving as much publicity as it should be. 

Inviting input from millions of South Africans may seem like a PR stunt, until you realise who the commission has amongst its ranks. Cyril Ramaphosa is the deputy NPC chairman, and could have more experience than anyone else when it comes to this sort of thing. He was a trade unionist, sat through Codesa and the sausage factory that created our Constitution and is now a successful businessman.

“We’re taking the people making inputs deadly seriously,” he said at Wednesday’s press conference. DM

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Photo: Sipho Hlongwane for iMaverick


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