Real plan for development

2011-11-19 11:27

‘A?government ?that works well ?doesn’t just ?deliver more ?houses. It does more than that. It makes it possible for people to build or buy their own houses. This can be through earnings from work, savings, borrowing from the bank, family networks or government subsidies.”

I almost fell off my chair reading this conclusion of the National Development Plan (NDP).

I could have sworn they took it out of my Master’s thesis on the role that the private sector could play in alleviating the housing crisis. The thesis was completed at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1988.

That is 23 years ago, literally a generation ago.

This raises the question of how many other ideas have withered on the vine over the past quarter century since we started mapping out post-apartheid alternatives.

But it also suggests that as a society we need to find institutional mechanisms for drawing in ideas from all quarters of society irrespective of racial or political background, and beyond political parties.

The National Planning Commission would have done future generations a great service if it set as its goal the search for ideas, wherever they may reside. It could also be the archive of both of our past and our future.

The commission can achieve the former by going into our collective memory and the latter by viewing its current work as a record to guide those who come after us.

After all, the ideas that the commission is propounding have been there throughout much of our history as a nation. Drawing on that history, some of us have spent the past decade lamenting the dependency-inducing service delivery approach to development.

We have argued that what ails this society’s institutions is the appointment of feckless political activists to positions for which they are simply not qualified.

The NDP is also right on the mark when it says: “The government can build schools but it cannot make children go to school and study hard. It needs parents and teachers to do that.”

Again, drawing on our historical memory some of us have been calling on teachers to start behaving like the teachers who taught us to study hard – and left us with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

The image of teachers toyi-toying is a sorry sight, quite a departure from the demeanour of reserve and the dignity that was traditionally associated with this most honourable profession.

The NDP is doubly on the money when it notes that: “We have to look at things differently and behave differently.”

In short we need a change in consciousness.

That too cannot be that hard for us to fathom – if all we did was glance, simply glance over our shoulders to the black renaissance of the 70s, when Steve Biko called on us to take our fate into our own hands through a combination of political, cultural and intellectual creativity.

The NDP is now extending the call for a new consciousness to all South Africans through the proposed Bill of Responsibilities. And yes, some of us are delighted that the commission has woken up to the fact that our housing policies have done nothing other than intensify the spatial geography of apartheid.

If anything, the commission’s greatest potential is fulfilling Biko’s description of democratic government: “In a government where democracy is allowed to work, one of the principles that are normally entrenched is a feedback system, a discussion in other words between those who formulate policy and those who must perceive, accept or reject policy.

“People can hear, they may not be able to read and write but they can hear and understand the issues when they are put to them.”

Indeed, the issues are technical but the fact that the climate is changing for the worse is not that hard to communicate to people experiencing the effects of changing weather patterns.

In my township of Ginsberg in Eastern Cape, a school that once produced the likes of Biko, Steve Tshwete, Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge, Mthobi Tyamzashe, Sindisile MacLean and many other distinguished South Africans, is a ghost of its former self because of a feckless principal that the community hasn’t had the courage to remove for well over two decades now.

If you multiply this local experience in thousands of other communities, then you have a nation in the intensive care unit. But reverse those experiences, community by community, then you have a nation that could, like South Korea, emerge to lead the world on the strength of its educational system.

Finally, I have over the past year been writing a book about the need for us to go beyond individual leaders to the development of strong institutions as the basis of a durable democracy.

I believe that the commission could be such a transcendent institution – at both national and the local level.

Through its processes of deliberation we could begin to talk to each other?– as opposed to past each other – and work with each other across the racial, ethnic and ideological chasms that have widened just as we have established our democracy.

With such a body as the planning commission in place, the leadership debate in this country could shift from the popularity contest that it is now to a choice of leaders on the basis of their ability to the institutional foundations of our democracy, and thereby invite us to higher levels of cultural and institutional creativity.

The commission could give us yet another chance to rethink the unsustainable course we have been on over the past two decades – with disastrous socio-economic consequences in policy areas such as HIV/Aids, poverty and inequality.

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