Manuel’s epic political gamble

2011-11-12 19:40

The National Planning Commission’s (NPC’s) 430-page roadmap for development up to 2030, the national development plan, which it released on Friday, represents an epic political gamble.

There is much that will be fiercely debated, including allowing exploratory fracking to see if gas can be an alternative to nuclear power, requiring schools to recite the preamble to the Constitution at assemblies and devolving power from provinces to municipalities.

There is much that will outrage powerful unions and significant blocs within the ANC, not to mention its alliance partners.

With the minister responsible for the NPC paying little heed to the trouble it will cause, Trevor Manuel’s magnum opus has provided some startlingly incisive analysis on what is broken in South Africa, and also a surprisingly clear blueprint for fixing it.

But getting it accepted as government policy, let alone implemented, will represent a huge challenge for President Jacob Zuma, who may yet come to regret its unflinching nature.

At times, the plan is about equal parts ambitious and optimistic.South Africa, it tells us, has the resources and ability to wipe out poverty entirely, and go a long way towards reducing inequality in less than 20 years – on condition that everyone tries hard enough.

That, in turn, will heal the wounds left by colonialism and apartheid, leaving a prosperous, unified nation. Other sections of the document have a distinctly more hedged approach.

“The majority of South Africans who have remained poor have demonstrated remarkable patience, showing they understand that centuries of damage cannot be undone in a few decades.

“While great strides can be made in the next two decades, we will still only be building the foundations for the equitable and prosperous society that we dream of,” the plan reads.

The criticism of previous policies and their implementation – and by implication those responsible for them – is unsparing.

The original Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) suffered from blind faith in the ability of the government to deliver, and a blind spot
regarding the impact economic change in the rest of the world would have.

Remilitarising the police force caused greater violence, not less, and increased the number of cops killed on the job.

Development achievements included providing electricity and running water to far more people in areas where implementation was easy; while more difficult and important sectors such as education saw failure.

The implied deal is that the rich will put more effort and money towards upliftment (“without suggesting which taxes should be raised,” Manuel says), while the poor will hang in there just a little longer, and won’t cause social instability by falling prey to populists who offer short-term interventions that will make things worse all around.Mine nationalisation and land expropriation without compensation doesn’t come up directly, except for repeated calls for certainty about ownership and tenure, and a plea that markets and business confidence should not be distorted.In some cases, such certainty will come at a price, if the NPC has its way.

Under its proposed model for reforming commercial agriculture, commercial farmers in each municipal district will carry half the cost of buying 20% of the prime land in the area for transfer to black farmers.

That will earn them protection against losing their land in future, as well as empowerment status.

Perhaps the most far-reaching changes suggested by the plan stem from a philosophy that those in charge of managing the civil service, at all levels, should get appointed mostly based on merit, then be left alone to do their jobs.

The commission isn’t calling for an end to cadre deployment as such, and isn’t arguing that there shouldn’t be political appointees right at the top.

Manuel said: “I think we’re looking for an accountable public service made up of professionals and people who will also be able to respond to the needs of the ruling government.

“The public service must be immersed in the development agenda but insulated from political interference.”That starts right at the top, with new powers for the Public Service Commission and the creation of a super-administrator post, a civil service head to who all the currently powerful directors-general of departments will report.

Those government department heads should be appointed via a hybrid system, the plan says, considering both their administrative skills and the political requirements of the ruling party.

Further down the chain, though, that political prerogative drops away.

Senior managers should be able to appoint their own staff without politics coming into play.

The chief executives of parastatals should be appointed by the boards of the companies, not directly by Cabinet. However, boards appointed by government, it could reasonably be assumed, would not be wholly insensitive to political pressure.

But by the time it gets to the really important appointments, even that should fall away.“Expertise is recognised as the only criterion for appointing and promoting personnel within the education sector,” the plan reads.

“Union and political interference in appointments should be removed.”

And school principals who owe their position to anything other than merit will have 10 years to get the qualifications they will require under a new set of standards, or else hit the road.

School principals are a good example of the general approach of appointing the right people, then getting out of their way.Principals should be able to do things such as buy textbooks for their schools, the plan says, as well as hire and fire teachers as they see fit.Their reward for running a good school should be less oversight, and far less of the paper work aimed at monitoring performance at troubled institutions.

Popular with business, but less so among unions, will be the development plan’s approach to labour.It suggests an implied six-month probation period for new employees during which firing is effectively as easy as pointing to the door.

It calls for a simplification of dismissal procedures when it comes to misconduct or performance, and a system in which nit-picking about that procedure won’t be rewarded with reinstatement or a settlement.

There are no firm timelines for what happens now, no schedule for consultation on the plan, or no plan for its further development.But in theory, the NPC will soldier on with more reports and detailed roadmaps while, in theory at least, insulated from the politics of the day.

» De Wet is the deputy editor of The Daily Maverick

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