National Planning Commission

Getting South Africa economically ‘unstuck’ requires just two things

By Sasha Planting 21 January 2021

(Illustrative image | Sources: EPA / Nic Bothma)

Fixing state capacity – or incapacity – and improving educational outcomes are critical to reviving SA’s stalled growth and setting it on a course similar to countries like Vietnam and Malaysia, a document from the National Planning Commission points out.

South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) is a weighty tome that runs to almost 800 pages and charts a course towards a decent sustainable life for all South Africans by 2030, with full employment, greater equality and the elimination of poverty as its overarching goals.

While there was some success in achieving these goals, the past five to 10 years have seen a notable regression in key areas like employment and poverty alleviation. 

As a result, the lofty goals set out in the NDP simply cannot be met – and that was before the Covid-19 crisis plunged thousands back into poverty and joblessness. 

The question is: why can the country not meet the goals it set itself? What went wrong? And what to do to reverse the trend?

Corruption, nepotism and state inefficiency are identified as binding constraints, but simply identifying a problem is not the same as resolving it. 

With this in mind, the National Planning Commission (NPC) – established in 2010 to develop a long term vision and strategic plan for South Africa – has released its Review of Economic Progress which runs to 170 pages and evaluates SA’s lack of progress in achieving these goals. 

It is based on the NPC’s work of the last eight years and draws on the research contained in several policy documents published in this time. 

Critically, the review makes specific recommendations on what needs to be done to break SA’s negative cycle. These run to 30 pages. The NPC has identified seven fundamental areas that need to be addressed if growth is to be kickstarted. 

These include: 

  • Fiscal sustainability – transformation is impossible without this
  • Building SA’s capital asset base
  • Building SA’s human asset base
  • Digital readiness
  • Driving employment-oriented industries
  • Public employment – considered a critical poverty alleviation measure
  • Addressing the state’s capability to deliver, which is a binding constraint on growth.

Fundamental to achieving any of these objectives is a capable state, effective governance of key state institutions and fiscal resilience.  

“There is no example of a country that pulled out of such a downward spiral to achieve decades of growth without a progressive strengthening of state institutions,” says Miriam Altman, a commissioner with the NPC. She was speaking at an online event hosted by the NPC and moderated by Elias Masilela, one of 25 commissioners on the NPC.

The document examines South Africa’s performance against a basket of countries – South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey and Vietnam – that have similarly fraught backgrounds. Two things stand out, says Altman. 

“The strength of institutions and investment in people are the critical differentiators between countries that progress and those that don’t. This is where we need a national discourse.”

For example, while there is corruption in Vietnam, this has not destroyed the state’s capacity for delivery. Strengthening these two areas is absolutely vital.

“For instance, South Africa has planned to release spectrum for years. Why have we not done this? It boils down to capability.” 

While the recommendations have been narrowed down to ensure focus, former statistician-general Pali Lehola was sceptical about whether these would be implemented and whether the report really provided the country with an opportunity to “course correct”. 

This, he says, was because there was never a proper plan to implement the NDP in the first place. “It will never get off the shelf without a proper planning process,” he says.

Imraan Valodia, dean of the faculty of commerce, law and management at Wits University, added that he would have liked to have seen a more robust and analytical framework “to understand why things have turned out like they have”.

“The sad part is that we have frittered away the fiscal space that was created. This was our opportunity to invest our resources to put us on a new growth path. That money has been spent, but not in a way that leads to growth. We need to have these debates.”

The release of the report was welcomed by Trudi Makhaya, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s economic adviser, who reassured those concerned about too many reports and possible ‘analysis paralysis’, that many of the report’s recommendations had been included in government’s economic reconstruction and recovery plan.

Altman added that the recommendations were crafted after “deep engagement” with government. 

For instance, the recommendations on state-owned entities (SOEs) followed from discussions with the new SOE council and the ministerial cluster responsible. Similarly, the recommendations on infrastructure and education followed discussions with the infrastructure and investment office in the presidency and department of basic education.  

“What is clear is that South Africa is stuck. The best way to get unstuck and create momentum is to find the things that there is agreement on, and where there is an existing policy, create movement there.

“For instance, we agree that improving SOE leadership is a priority on which the performance of that entity depends. So you cannot put a three-year timeline to this… it must be done in 2021. On this, we all agree.” You can’t fix a company when no one is home.” 

The NPC is now working with the presidency to match the NDP aspirations with government policy.

As the NPC wraps up its work – its term comes to an end in February – one hopes the enormous contribution made by the commissioners does not simply gather dust. DM/BM

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All Comments 8

  • There are three legs on which success is built:
    1. Efficiency – where what you know and can do replaces who you know and what influence you can wield;
    2. Willingness- where you are willing to commit for the benefit of all rather than that of 1;
    3. Capacity – a product of the first two legs, this is having the right tools and materials to make the national dream into national reality

  • While South Africa wallows in the quagmire of “previously disadvantaged”, and basis most its policies on addressing these without taking into consideration the consequences, we will never get anywhere. Reverse discrimination is creating a situation where the sector of the population that can achieve all inclusive growth is stifled and discouraged. This leads to the declining economic mess South Africa finds itself in today. Create a climate in which business can thrive and prosper, and the bulk of a lot of our problems will, to a large degree, be sorted. And oh, you need to curtail the enthusiasm of the self-serving trade union movement – they are not doing themselves, their members or the country any good.

  • Blah, blah, blah. How many more commissions, think-tanks or talk shops must we spend a fortune on when we all know (and have been told many times) what we must do to get this unfortunate, blighted country off its knees? Vigorously prune the civil service and employ only capable people. See that every cent of collected tax is spent judiciously. Hunt down predator-like the crooks in government and big business. Place education at the top of our needs (this will of course mean taking on the unions). And finally allow business to get on with making money without the plethora of throttling and race-based red tape that now constrains it. We don’t need another commission to tell us this. We need a government of action, not talk.

  • Madness is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. Until we appoint competent, honest ministers who are not ideologically hidebound by the shackles of the unholy trinity, we will continue to be stuck in Groundhog Day.

  • “Public employment – considered a critical poverty alleviation measure” Only by the Statists. The rest of us realise that the vast bulk of “public employment” is paid for from the taxes of those who actually work, and is itself seldom productive.

  • The problem is known. The comparisons are plain. The analyses are correct. All that’s missing is the political drive and will to achieve.

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