The National Plan – it holds almost a mythical status in our discourse about our future, and has a multiplicity of meaning. These meanings are layered with deep ideological, class, race, gender and many other chasms that are the South African reality. The idea that closes this chasm is that with a national plan, we will find common ground to face the deep and structural reasons that make us a country with staggeringly high rates of unemployment and inequality. We are placing our future hopes on a national plan, that the National Planning Commission (NPC)has been tasked to develop. In placing such a huge burden on the commission, the quietness of the NPC to outline a process towards meeting this goal is disappointing.
It is also understandable in that the NPC is doing something that we have not done before. The task is after all formidable one to both:
- unite society behind a programme,
- and at the same time develop a deliberate strategy to overcome the structural nature of unemployment, inequality and low economic growth.
With such an important task, the NPC has however failed to mobilise it’s most important resource – the people of South Africa. The process currently fails to galvanise the energy of citizens to begin developing inputs and to organise and mobilise behind their perspectives. The process of developing the “vision statement” must be consultative at the outset, and not a product of process involving just the commissioners and experts. Importantly, I do not think that the NPC would disagree with the core principle of participation. What is at issue is whether public involvement happens sooner or later. I argue it should happen immediately.
What the NPC should be doing?
What then should the NPC be doing? The NPC should be immediately doing three things.
- Involve people immediately. This would require setting up systems for citizens to contribute to the NPC in a meaningful way, and in the organisational forms of their choosing. This deepens democracy and advances our intrinsic values of a “people’s democracy”. At an instrumental level, it creates a legitimate and open process. As we know from our history, people participating in the process become the strongest advocates of ideas that they have helped shaped.
- The NPC must listen. For some the NPC are like sages that will deliver answers. This is not the role of the NPC. Instead, it must search for the answers in society. Fortunately, there is an abundance of ideas in our society. Yet, the question remains whether we are providing a platform for the idea creators to share their solutions and contribute to the national plan. Importantly, this process requires openness and transparency to catalyse innovative thinking and effective implementation. This brings the advantage of multiplying ideas, and after that weeding out the bad ideas, and seeding the good ones. Importantly, this process creates the prospects for shaking the proverbial hegemony of ideas in our society, by unleashing the talents of South Africans outside of the current organisations that dominate our discourse.
- The NPC must release early and release often, to use a term from software development. I doubt that anyone has a view that the national plan is an event where the President simply announces it. Instead, everyone agrees it is a process. The real question is around what that process should be. I would argue that the NPC should be presenting a set of options on an important issue, and asking for advice, criticism and calling for alternatives. To do this, it must release documents often and early, so that it involves people, builds trust and field-tests ideas and their programmatic elements.
Too some a democratic process for the National Plan is a non-starter, given the deep divides in our society. However, the process itself could provide for a deepening of democracy, an assessment of ideas, and a bridge across our traditional divides. Obviously, government must take decisions at the end of the day, and ensure implementation. The way it develops policy however is important to building support around a vision for our country. More to the point, through assessing all the options it helps in choosing policy options that will challenge the underlying power relations that underpin inequality and unemployment.Ultimately, are we as a society comfortable with handing over our futures, without participating in it? The overwhelming answer is that not only are we uncomfortable with such a state of affairs, as a society we would welcome and cherish the opportunity to shape our collective future.