Why does the South African National Development Plan divide us?

Do we hunt rabbits or deer?  The analogy of hunters making choices between hunting rabbits on the one hand, and hunting deer on the other hand, offers a way to understand the extraordinary failings in South African National Development Plan (NDP). The choices faced by the hunters are to either (a) hunt deer as a group, and in so doing everyone will eat and not just for one day or (b) hunt rabbits as individuals only the successful hunter will eat a single meal ([ref] The idea of a stag hunt as a cooperation game is an old one, that has some useful applications to public policy. See this Wikipedia entry for a good introduction. In this article, we use the idea metaphorically. [/ref]) . This series of posts argues that the NDP turns us into a nation of rabbit hunters, not deer hunters leading to distributional outcomes that are likely to perpetuate inequality and unemployment. It starts with a discussion on failure of reach agreement within the Tripartite Alliance, and having dealt with the political challenges, it the next article focuses on the debilitating fetish of economic growth on our thinking.

Hopeful Moments For A Social Compact

On the establishment of the NDP, the prospects of rigorous planning and coalition building were high.  The ANC had begun discussing the concept of a “Second Transition” (PDF Link), and both the SACP and COSATU had refined their perspectives on economic development, and on redistribution. The prospects for a left programme rooted in our context seemed not only possible, but desirable. More importantly, the process around the National Development Plan, could potentially test the ideas emerging from workers and communists, and provide a sounding board for linking broad theoretical concepts to questions of implementation. The outcome would be a united public policy platform for the Tripartite Alliance, given expression in the NDP. In turn, this would be the foundation for constructing wider coalitions in society, potentially codified in a social compact.
Sadly, hope in this process was misplaced. The usual-usual followed. The SACP and COSATU offered root-and-branch criticism of the NDP, while the Planning Commissioners argued that their policies represented the best options going forward. In all of this, the ANC was strangely silent. The Alliance Summit held after the publication of the NDP, agreed that there were disagreements and established a committee to discuss these. It also attempted to salvage parts of the NDP by asserting that were agreements are reached implementation will take place.  The process after the Alliance Summit has faltered with COSATU noting that scheduled meetings were either poorly attended or not scheduled.
Political economy explanations of the divisions have focused on ideological divisions, or have focused on the dominance of the  African National Congress (ANC) . These explanations offer much in terms of understanding where we are, but shy away from imagining a better process. To imagine this process, we need to enter the power saturated world of internal political management.

Extraordinary Failure

The disagreements in the Tripartite Alliance represent an extraordinarily large failure. It is worth restating the obvious –  a plan developed by a government of the African National Congress, does not have the support of its alliance partners and has received lukewarm reception from National Executive Committee of the ANC.  This virtually paralysis the country in terms of communicating to investors, and more importantly getting going on the tasks of creating jobs and reducing inequality.
One is left wondering, why a process to reach a semblance of agreement in the Tripartite Alliance was not run in parallel to the development of the NDP. The answer offered by both COSATU and SACP speaks of a dominance of a policy formulation process developed in the National Treasury over the last twenty years. in the view of SACP and COSATU , this process is one of insulated policy making by neoliberal technocrats,.  One is left gobsmacked by the criticism South Africa remains stuck in the debates that followed the publication of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution: A Macroeconomic Strategy.

Are we really to believe that bureaucrats are outmanoeuvring powerful organisations like COSATU and SACP for the last 18 years?

The National Planning Commission (NPC) argues that its task was to develop the best policy proposals, not manage politics.  In fairness, the NPC was structured to be independent advisory body. However, it would be naïve to argue that the NPC was not conscious of the likely impact of its proposals on wider South African society. The NPC would have in all likelihood aimed to receive support from major players, both inside and outside the Tripartite Alliance as it is minimum requirement for implementation of the plan. More importantly, the NDP sees itself as a basis for reaching a “social compact”.

Are we really to believe that the NPC saw its task primarily as a thought exercise, distant from delivering a plan that had a minimum level of support?

Brazilian Organised Platforms and Indian Coalitions

The internal management of party politics is a core function of a ruling party aiming to create a developmental state. In fact, projects created by left leaning governments require extensive process management, and the articulation of policies tempered by reality but fuelled by ethical commitments to justice. It is a demanding and complex task, but far from impossible. In a sense, it is about building a realistic radicalism.
To illustrate, both India and Brazil have long-term plans in place that are widely supported, and have large programmes both to supporting small business and providing work and income to the poor. This is worth expanding upon for emphasis:

  1. Government is engaged with the market in ways that reform the way markets work, with activity focused on supporting smaller players in the economy; and
  2. Recognising the role of the state to support poor households, strategies are implemented that provide income support and connects poor households to opportunities.

Now, to reach these end points, the ruling governments in India and Brazil needed to build support around a plan. Even our limited understanding of party politics in India and Brazil, tells us that like in our society there is vigorous contestation within centre-left parties, especially those capable of winning elections. In fact, left politics in India and Brazil seems much more noisy. On Zapreneur, we have earlier discussed the meaning of the Lula Presidency and its very contested interpretations.
In the case of the Workers Party in Brazil it contends with over 25 different “organised platforms”, that as Brazilian commentators remind us have their own internal disagreements. In India, the Congress Party has a governing coalition with other political parties  called the United Progressive Alliance.  Sitting in South Africa, the inner workings of these governing arrangements are impossible to follow let alone understand, as political parties guard their inner workings. The outcome is however understandable – robust internal debates leads to the development of better public policy for political parties, but that the process is about power with some ideas being endorsed, and others not. More to the point, the process is often brutal with weaker policy platforms (in terms of support, not always on substance) being squashed. The outcome is important as the Workers Party and Congress Party are able to unite their constituencies, define the dominant policy platform and garner support for their programme. More to the point, the plans are criticised – often justifiably – for being timid in the face of hunger and inequality on the one hand, or limiting capitalism.
Our Tripartite Alliance does not function in a similar way, and provides an important insight on why the NDP – which should unite South Africa, has become a source of deep division. In Brazil and India, the process around developing national plans is deeply contested, however the political parties manage their internal processes much more effectively.

Are we even hunting?

The extraordinary failure of political management of the NDP has consequences. Unlike President Dilma Rousseff or Manmohan Singh, our president Jacob Zuma is unable to lead a national debate on the future of the country. Zuma instead contends with a house divided. It is a worst possible outcome, leaving not only our President without a coherent plan, but as a society without the building blocks of a wider agreement on how we meet the challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment. This however has powerful implications, enabling the drafters of the NDP to steer the conversation, which may be the intended outcome. Even if this is so, it is a much weaker outcome than an agreed strategy crafted in the fiercest of policy debates.
Where does this leave us in terms of our metaphor of rabbits? Arguably, we have not yet understood that as a nation we are hungry, let alone whether we are hunting deer or rabbit.
In the next article, we will discuss why economic growth as a central indicator is so limiting to developing a national plan. Most importantly, the debate on economic growth provides an insight that may suggest that the lack of internal political management might be intentional. The article will be ready when it is ready, but I plan to publish it next Wednesday (unless I get immersed in the fascinating debate between Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati).

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