South Africa


Ten steps on how to build effective partnerships to solve South Africa’s challenges

Ten steps on how to build effective partnerships to solve South Africa’s challenges
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

A new approach, based on effective collaboration, is essential to the successful implementation of public policy priorities.

At the recent national Human Settlements Indaba, held on 6 March 2020, Minister Lindiwe Sisulu asked those present to commit to a declaration of collaboration. In this regard, the minister was reinforcing the message from President Cyril Ramaphosa that we need a whole-of-society approach in order to achieve our developmental goals. Ramaphosa emphasised in the recent State of the Nation Address that government cannot solve societal challenges on its own: “It is through partnership and cooperation that we progress.”

The president has asked South Africans to work more collaboratively and to do development differently.

This is not a new call. It’s not the first time we are talking about partnerships and collaboration. Concepts like “cooperative governance” and “integrated development planning” have been around for a long time. Why have these approaches not always produced positive results?

Based on an evaluation of 20 years of partnering practice in South Africa – what works and what doesn’t – here are 10 steps towards a new partnering approach which, in our experience, results in more successful implementation of public policy objectives:

  1. Partnering is about stepping into action. This is why it is helpful to focus on “partnering” (the verb), an action word, rather than “partnerships” (the noun), which tends to get bogged down with protracted discussions about governance structures. Partnering is not about setting up more structures for coordination and more forums for dialogue; rather, it’s about organising better delivery systems and accelerating implementation by being clear with every plan or commitment we make: who needs to work together to make this happen, and, how are we going to work better together in practice?
  2. Partnerships don’t work well if they are vague and non-specific. Trying to partner with everyone on everything is not effective. Partnerships work best if they focus on specific issues and targeted spaces where people and institutions are required to work together.
  3. Spatial transformation and human settlements development, for example, make up a complex system with multiple components, situated in government, the market and society. There are many interdependencies within the system. It follows that improving the relationships in the system is critical for success. A new partnering approach needs to unblock barriers to implementation, specifically by addressing relationships that have become dysfunctional or toxic, transforming non-collaborative attitudes, behaviours and mindsets, and overcoming the diabolical combination of silos and egos.
  4. Partnering is not only about building relationships between government and non-government stakeholders. A new partnering approach also needs to focus on getting the government to work better together with government, transversely – across silos, sector departments and entities, and inter-governmentally – between spheres of government and across political and administrative boundaries. Without an effective “whole of government” approach, a “whole of society” approach will be elusive. Specifically, for example, in terms of delivering human settlements priorities, we need to find better ways to manage concurrent powers, and functions between national and provincial governments.
  5. Doing development differently requires us to shift our approach in three ways:
    • From weak coordination and nominal or token cooperation to active collaboration.
    • From non-responsive planning and inflexible implementation systems to adaptive planning and implementation, for example, get the starter conditions in place and step into action, rather than wait for the perfect plan, and before too long, reflect, learn, adjust and adapt the plan. This will mean continuing to reform our inflexible public sector compliance frameworks.
    • From command and control attitudes to collaborative leadership.
  6. It’s important to embrace the difference. Partners don’t have to agree on everything in order to be able to work together. In a partnering process, stakeholders can have different and even competing interests. An effective partnering process is able to identify overlapping interests, bring these together into a common agenda and turn this into joint action.
  7. The optimal goal of a new partnering approach is to be able to combine collaboration in the “top-down” mandating and authorising environment of government – politics, policies, powers, plans, people and budgets, with collaboration in the “bottom-up” mobilising environment of business and civil society – activism, volunteerism, self-help, impact investment, entrepreneurs, local knowledge and ideas. Aligning the relationships between the “top-down” and “bottom-up” environments can generate the extra energy needed to drive implementation.
  8. John F Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961 inspired people to see the importance of civic action and public service. His historic words, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” challenged citizens to contribute in some way to the public good. Similarly, a partnership cannot be based only on what the government must do to empower its partners, but how each and every partner is contributing to the common good. A genuine partnership exists when there is shared risk and reward, and mutual accountability, between the partners. If only one of the partners is taking the risks, or reaping the rewards, then this is not a partnership.
  9. Non-government stakeholders, such as NGOs, community-based organisations, faith-based organisations, youth and women’s groups et cetera, operate most effectively at the local level. National partnering agreements are important for setting the right tone, but need to be turned into collective impact at the precinct and neighbourhood level. Municipalities, supported by provinces and national government, need to be encouraged and empowered to initiate, and participate in local partnering processes.
  10. Those working in a system such as human settlements development need to be able to both manage the things they control directly, and influence institutions and behaviours that they don’t control. You can’t influence other people and institutions in the system if you are not in trusted relationships with them. Relationship building is sometimes characterised as a soft issue, needing soft skills. Relationships are in fact the hardest, but most essential part of the system to get right. This is why building collaborative leadership capabilities, and challenging non-collaborative attitudes, behaviours and mindsets, is central to implementing a new partnering strategy. DM


Andrew Boraine is CEO of the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership (EDP), a not-for-profit company that helps the public sector and partners from business, civil society, and science and research work together to find practical solutions to complex problems. This article is based on a presentation made to the national Human Settlements Indaba held on 6 March 2020 in Gauteng.


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