OPINION | NDP implementation: Slow pace, delays and lack of accountability have taken their toll

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The NDP addresses the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality but slow implementation has taken its toll, says the writer.
The NDP addresses the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality but slow implementation has taken its toll, says the writer.

After 26 years of democracy, we ought to work more expeditiously to achieve our goals as set out in the National Development Plan, writes Malegapuru Makgoba.

The second National Planning Commission (NPC) has accomplished remarkable achievements in a very challenging period of five years.

The NPC, whose responsibility it is to advise government and champion the implementation of the National Development Plan (NDP), has prepared its final report before the end of its tenure in March 2021.

During a joint sitting of the Houses of Parliament on 16 October 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa reaffirmed the importance of the role of the NPC when he reiterated that the NDP remains the central plan in the country.

The NDP is the product of thousands of inputs and perspectives from different stakeholders across the length and breadth of the country.

It was developed as a plan for a better future; a future in which no person lived in poverty, where no one goes hungry, where there is work for all, a nation united in the vision of what is possible.

Triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality

The NDP as our blueprint towards 2030 speaks, inter alia, about our dreams and aspirations and details actionable, implementable steps to achieve them. The NDP also informs the programme that was outlined at the beginning of the 6th administration, where again, key priorities were set out to drive change and ensure the transformation of our country. Building a new country, brick by brick, as it were.

The NPC has, over time, repeatedly emphasised how vital NDP implementation was to achieve improved trajectories, especially as it related to addressing the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality. The slow pace, the inordinate delays and the lack of accountability have now finally taken their toll.

The good news is we are entering a new phase in our democracy. There is an exceptionally strong political will and commitment to deliver on the NDP and to drive implementation. Thus, the NDP is now all about "implementation, implementation and more implementation". This is the single most significant step change we have seen in recent times.

Against all odds, the president is providing strong leadership by taking on a central role in the implementation of the NDP. This has assured South Africa that, as we embark on the journey towards a post Covid-19 recovery phase, we will focus on achieving our stated objectives, like never before.

The president recently stated:

I want to see implementation and it will be directed from the president's office.

The work of the second NPC

The second NPC began its work in September 2015 for a five-year period and which will most likely result in the appointment of a new commission. To this end, it will shortly release an "end-of-term" report, which will provide a detailed overview of its work over the last five years. The report covers the key activities of the NPC, how it organised itself, the strategic insights it gained and shares reflections from its research, analysis, policy and planning processes and stakeholder engagements during this period.

Importantly, it will advise on the necessity of institutionalising long-term national developmental planning as a science – a means of ensuring policy and planning coherence, coordination and the need to do so beyond electoral cycles. It will also seek to highlight key recommendations and advise on a range of policy and planning matters to do with national development. As an expert advisory body and think-tank, the mandate of the NPC is to take an independent, research-based, cross-cutting and critical approach in its work.

Quite remarkably, despite the historic and contemporary conditions and issues that emerged in the turbulent external and internal environments, the second NPC produced more than 30 research papers, including reports, advisory and concept notes and policy and planning briefs that are in the public domain. The NPC applied the utility of its convening power to conduct more than 250 stakeholder engagements, consultations and processes with key sectors such as business and social partners, including Nedlac and civil society organisations, to promote the implementation of the NDP priorities and promote its implementation.

The NPC noted challenges that pose a risk to our constitutional democracy, to the majority of impoverished people and a viable functioning state. It highlighted, inter alia:

  • The weakening of government and key state institutions, poor public service performance and the erosion of confidence and trust across society;
  • The blurring of lines between political and administrative functions;
  • Systemic corruption which prevails in both the public and private sector;
  • Severe and limiting fiscal constraints; and
  • Crime, including gender-based violence, is persistently high and the types of violence are shocking in their brutality.

The NPC also notes with concern factors that hamper the implementation of the NDP. These include the lack of clearly defined mechanisms to deliver on the NDP and its priority goals and targets, including performance measurement, consequences and accountability.

Areas of progress

Notwithstanding all the challenges, the NPC also recognises areas of notable progress and remarkable successes.

The progress in rolling out comprehensive social protection should be celebrated as one of the most notable achievements, the elements of which are comprehensive social security, access to social assistance in the form of cash grants, health, education and shelter, and the provision of basic services to poor households. The social protection system continues to provide vital relief amid high levels of household vulnerability that also emanate from the economy's failings and the Covid-19 pandemic. It provides a viable livelihood to the majority of citizens. The Covid-19 pandemic highlights the importance of universal healthcare coverage and social protection systems that are sustainable, affordable and efficient.  

The NPC is encouraged too that at the core of South Africa's seven priorities of the current administration, all the NDP priorities have been foregrounded. In particular, the elevation to the number one priority of "building a capable, ethical and developmental state", is a major step in the right direction. This priority is infused into and as part of the "district delivery model" to improve the coordination and implementation of government services and initiatives. The objective is to attain better alignment with the NDP, with delivery grounded at the district level, and all three spheres working more effectively and coherently together. The NPC has been actively engaged in these processes.

Furthermore, the NPC advises that prioritising the capacity of the state must include a deliberate focus on institutionalising an enduring planning system and taking a long-term perspective. Too often, operational demands – the daily, immediate and short-term business of government from weighty decisions to the mundane – fix attention on the short term. Overcoming the tyranny of the present requires high-level action and broad, sustained effort.

The NPC is of the strong conviction that the NDP remains as relevant as ever, as a set of solutions and programmes of action to address South Africa's core development challenges. The NPC notes too that the task is not about developing new initiatives but rather the relentless pursuit of implementation of the existing NDP. The NPC strongly advocates revitalising implementation. Our prosperity, success and transformation ultimately all depend on our ability to envision the long-term, anticipate short-term developments and using planning, monitoring and evaluation to inform everything we do and seek to achieve. Giving the future short shrift only short-changes South Africa and its people.

Successful implementation often lies not in the big decisions but in the everyday routines, the endless micro-decisions and daily interactions among everyone concerned in ensuring action, execution and implementation. This needs to be pursued consistently and across the three spheres. We must learn to make the most of what we have and not what we wished we had. As such, a sustained focus on a small number of priorities is essential.

Covid-19 pandemic 

After 26 years of democracy, we ought to work more expeditiously to achieve our goals as set out in the NDP.

The remaining 10 years will be even tougher. This is so because of the Covid-19 pandemic that hit the world in 2020, more generally and South Africa more specifically, and literally turned the journey toward 2030 upside down. It threw into sharp focus a few quite extraordinary self-evident truths: the continued dire levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment and its related dimensions of spatial injustices, living conditions and distributional patterns are starker than ever. Yet, we must not tarry, or delay nor accept a transformation stopped mid-way! We have to continue to shift the dial. The NDP remains our lodestar.

The lessons of our collective failure to implement our plan fully suggest we need immediate course correction. The outbreak of the pandemic occasioned a rethink in the use of national planning as all of us grapple with the question of what a "new normal" might look like and how soon it might arrive.

To be useful, any plan of the future must be connected to the decisions of the present. All of this must make it possible to leverage the strength of the NDP - transforming the abstract long term into the concrete short-term actions so that leaders and all of us can understand the future quickly and act to stave off danger, seize opportunity and strengthen national development, especially in a time of crisis. 

- Professor Malegapuru Makgoba is deputy chair of the National Planning Commission.

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