Debates over the NDP are mere dialogue

2013-06-18 00:00

IT is interesting to note that in his budget-vote speech last week, the Minister in the Presidency in charge of the National Planning Commission, Trevor Manuel, chose to respond directly to controversial discussions on the National Development Plan (NDP) and Vision 2020.

I can think of a few reasons for this. The first is that he had been advised to leave the defence of the NDP to the president and the government. Indeed, several National Executive Committee (NEC) meetings have reiterated the Mangaung consensus on the NDP. In his budget-vote speech, President Jacob Zuma reported that the NDP is guiding his administration as a whole, calling it “one of the foremost achievements of the country since 1994”, because it has been embraced by most sectors of society. He minimised criticisms, calling them disagreements over details, rather than the broad thrust of the plan. He said the New Growth Path and other strategies now fall under the NDP umbrella. He announced that the NDP is being institutionalised in the government-wide planning and resource-allocation system, by being converted into the Medium-Term Strategic Framework. This means it will no longer be an option to implement it. Zuma indicated that all government departments have been asked to align their plans, going forward, to the NDP. He also announced that from now on, the task of communicating and marketing the plan will be one for the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) and Brand South Africa. In this sense, the NDP has been given a major boost and it is becoming ever more institutionalised, even as debates about it rage on. Manuel is aware of his own limitations as a sharp and combative debater, unpopular with some. That he is no longer in the NEC means his power internally has declined.

The second reason is that Manuel probably realises that he cannot successfully defend a plan he pushed through very tricky political processes, without risking his isolation within the alliance politics, which would also lead to a diminishing stature of the plan. It is now an ANC plan, and the party and the government ought to champion it.

The third, as has emerged recently, is that it seems that Manuel has chosen to engage informally with those who have objections to parts of the plan, with a view to integrating their input in revised versions of the document. It emerged last week that Chapter 7 was withdrawn and a revised one drafted after the Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, Maite Nkoana Mashabane, provided a strong rationale for the revision in an area that the commission had limited expertise.

My fourth reason is that Manuel has chosen to disengage from heated debates on the plan, especially those that are metaphors for other political questions facing the ANC-led alliance. Any direct response that he offered to allegations that the plan mirrors DA thinking, that it is neo-liberal and that it undermines the trade union’s preferred New Growth Path, would lead to the dialogue of the deaf because the positions are set, and they are part of fundamental political differences over the economic and development policies. He now has to consider how his involvement in acrimonious debates would affect general support for the NDP.

The fifth reason is that he, and the ANC in general, describe the NDP as an organic plan, a vision that must be adjusted from time to time to respond to inputs and circumstances. In this sense, except to dispel what he sees as damaging untruths or to generate a necessary debate about a particular subject, Manuel does not have to respond to all criticisms, but can rather allow the commission to take the issues raised into consideration, for further work on the document. All that Manuel did in his speech was remind all that economic and social developments do not just happen, but are outcomes of planned efforts. He underlined the fact that the president has announced the plan as a vision that embodies the dreams of all South Africans. Manuel showed that it is a little late to talk about the orientation and outlook of the plan by describing what departments are already achieving by implementing proposals within the NDP.

In this, Manuel shows how well he understands the ANC’s politics and systems. He realises that achieving political consensus will take time, so he is institutionalising the plan, making it futile to lobby for its withdrawal. How the critics will respond to this remains to be seen.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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