The strange politics of going nowhere fast

RW Johnson reviews the NPC document examining progress made to the NDP's Vision 2030

When the National Planning Commission (NPC) was set up in 2010 with the aim of drafting a National Development Plan it was quickly apparent that this was not, in any ordinary sense, to be a plan. Indeed, the problem is that the ANC does not seem to know what a plan is.

What it likes to do is to draw up declaratory statements – the Freedom Charter is a good example – which are nothing more than wish-lists and which have little or no relation to what is likely to happen on the ground and which, indeed, have no provision for implementation at all.

Another example was the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) which went through multiple drafts and was, for a while, regarded with great seriousness as a blueprint for the future. Yet it was simply a huge unbudgeted wish-list without any timelines or any calculation as to how the various parts fitted together.

It signalled a complete ignorance of how government worked – the RDP cut across all ministerial and sectoral lines, ignored all financial constraints and would have required a gigantic and all-powerful planning secretariat to enforce it.

It was ignominiously scrapped after two years and replaced by GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution), a proper plan driven by the Treasury. Yet GEAR too was never fully implemented and long before its five-year term was over it too had just faded away. In practice the ANC government has never followed through on such plans and is easily distracted by adhockery.

Sure enough, the NPC produced another large wish-list, the National Development Plan, which envisaged high rates of growth and the virtual abolition of unemployment by 2030. There was a rare moment of truth when this was solemnly enacted by Parliament in 2012: Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota stood up and asked, “Who exactly will be in charge of implementing this Plan?” The benches of the ANC erupted in laughter. Everyone knew better than to take implementation seriously.

Nonetheless, ten years have elapsed since the NPC was set up and so the Commission has now had to review the progress towards its goals. The result is a bizarre but illuminating document[1] which has, perforce, to face up to something which the ANC does not normally own up to – that despite its regular boasts of “a better life for all” it has in fact been going backward, not forward. “At best”, the Commission says, “the country has not made meaningful progress since 2008.” Politically, this is very hard to say but the key paragraph which follows shows that the Commission believes things are much worse than that:

“Over the past decade, there have been clear signs of danger that South Africa could veer towards a downward spiral. Governance gaps have spilled over into the central processes of raising and distributing public resources. We are now beyond the cross-roads.... The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated a downwards spiral, in an already vulnerable economy. We are in a vicious circle ensuing from a toxic confluence of factors, namely falling investment, further diminishing tax revenues, debt service costs that crowd out all other spending.... The results are falling employment and rising poverty and inequality. This downward spiral must be broken.”

Note how the tentative mood of the first sentence (“could veer towards a downward spiral”) quickly moves to a strongly affirmative one (“has accelerated a downwards spiral”) and other extremely negative words crowd in (“vicious circle...toxic confluence”).

So what to do? We have to “firmly recommit to the goals of the Constitution .... broad-based growth ... a capable state ... meaningful committed partnerships ... critical actions taken on governance give new hope ... a package of commitments made by key stakeholders”. Etc. Surely not by accident this is pure Ramaphosa-speak, presumably as a way of trying to make its conclusions more palatable.

Unfortunately, the NPC does not re-examine its own vision. Its three watchwords are full employment, poverty reduction and equity. That is, jobs for everybody – a sort of giant levelling up – and then two sorts of redistribution. This vision passed without much comment in the 1990s but it was based on the parochial (and wrong) assumption that South Africa is a rich country which just needs to share things around more equally.

Francis Fukuyama, who visited South Africa in 1991, immediately put his finger on this. ANC economic thinking, he wrote, “appears to have been placed in a deep freeze for several decades”. It was preoccupied by redistribution but “the liberal economic revolution now sweeping Eastern Europe and Latin America, which maintains that wealth must be created before it can be redistributed ... has passed the ANC by”[2].

This thought recurs as the Report proceeds for there is an increasingly frantic emphasis on the need for economic growth as the only way to stop unemployment from climbing and, equally, the only way for the country to avoid a debt trap. But if growth is the key – and surely it is – then the Plan’s vision needs to be amended or even dismantled.

Ramaphosa has in recent time spoken frequently of the need to build (or re-build) “a capable state” and the NPC picks up this theme time after time, insisting as it does so on “The right person with the right skills in the right job”. Yet it is hard to know how to take this. The NPC is surely aware that cadre deployment is an essential backbone of the ANC state and that if it abandons that in favour of a simple meritocracy the party will lose much of its raison d’etre.

But think a little further. Just a year ago Andre de Ruyter became CEO of Eskom. It was generally understood that the appointment of a senior white businessman to this post was a sign of desperation. The Eskom situation had got worse and worse for thirteen years and the government was desperate to turn things around. Nothing less than complete desperation would have been sufficient to overturn the preference for black management at a SOE.

Interestingly, it was now admitted that the legion of black CEOs who had preceded de Ruyter in that post had in effect been lying. They had all claimed that Eskom was about to turn round but in practice this never happened. Indeed, it was now admitted that ministers had routinely intervened to insist on a “keep the lights on at all costs” policy, even though that meant cancelling routine maintenance and thus making everything worse over time. But de Ruyter happily agrees that he had suffered no such political interference. That is, ministers treated black CEOs quite differently and far less respectfully. As far as we can see de Ruyter is gradually sorting out the Eskom mess.

But if de Ruyter was the right man with the right skills in the right job, why do we not have similarly capable businessmen running the other SOEs as well ? And indeed, why stop there ? Most of our ministers are mediocre at best so why not replace them with meritocrats as well? At which point one comes up hard against the real bottom line which is that the whole meaning of ANC government is that Africans have to be seen to be in charge. The NPC insists on the general principle of meritocracy but it must know that the whole meaning of ANC government is a refusal of meritocracy.

Similarly the NPC says that “it will take generations to fully address South Africa’s legacy of apartheid” and in general takes the line that “colonialism” is what is now being rectified. This is, of course, the ANC line but if the NPC is honestly concerned with what has gone wrong this won’t really do.

The electricity crisis is, after all, entirely the ANC’s own work, as is the debt trap. And it’s no good talking about “building a capable state” if you don’t admit that the ANC inherited a capable state and then destroyed it. Just imagine if you really could “re-build a capable state”. Everything we know suggests that the ANC would quickly destroy that one too.

At which point one realises what a strange historical conjuncture this is. There are cases where wars, revolutions or coups have brought to power regimes which cast their country into a destructive downward spiral: think of Pol Pot in Cambodia or Chavez in Venezuela. But it is almost unprecedented for this to happen as a result of peaceful democratic change and for a government to steadily immiserate and under-develop a country.

And yet that is undeniably what is happening in South Africa. In the nineteenth century South Africa was bound together by its railway system – over half of all the railway lines in Africa are here. Yet that whole system now lies in ruins, as does the national airline. Trucks on the national highways are attacked and burned.

Building sites have to be abandoned under pressure from thuggish construction mafias. The NPC itself points out that municipal government has effectively collapsed in about three quarters of the country – a fact ruinous to many small and middle-sized towns. 60% of municipal revenue, they say, will never be collected. The economy has shrunk, unemployment has tripled under ANC rule and we are steadily de-industrialising. There is really no need to be hesitant about calling this a downward spiral.

One would like to know what ANC leaders really think about this process. Publicly, they are wholly silent and even pretend that progress is ongoing but they must surely know the truth. Perhaps in secret conclave they admit something of the sort but overall there is an astonishingly disciplined conspiracy of silence. And into that silence steps the NPC and, greatly daring, admits a little of the truth. But pretences have to be maintained so the fiction that the decline is due to apartheid is repeated and it is suggested that all that is required is “a course correction”. It is, in other words, impossible to believe in the Commissioners’ good faith.

For their Report is an unrelieved tale of woe. The NDP specified that 30% of GDP should be invested each year as gross fixed capital formation. This figure has never been reached and the average in the 2000-2015 period was a mere 18.4%. In 2016-17 the figure actually became negative and there have been huge shortfalls in public investment.

The NPC continues to talk blithely of “the developmental state” but their own figures belie it: the state devotes its funds to consumption, not investment, and the SOEs are an actual drag on development. Moreover, the quality of the infrastructure built and maintained is miserable, storing up trouble for the future. The state’s record on mega-projects is so bad that the NPC recommends that these be avoided entirely in future.

At times one feels the NPC is deliberately obtuse about what is going on. When, for example, it records that in the period 2002-2020 public sector workers enjoyed wage increases 40% in advance of inflation the real point is surely that the state is thereby displaying its own true priority, the creation of a bureaucratic bourgeoisie which dominates the state and society.

No other objective receives anything like that expenditure, after all. Moreover, look hard at what ANC leaders do with money they steal - they spend a fortune on luxury cars, on foreign travel, on parties, weddings, expensive whiskey and so on. That is, the imperative is always conspicuous consumption, not even private investment and saving.

The NPC has an enormous number of recommendations – it has clearly not heard of Tony Blair’s maxim that if you have ten priorities you have no priorities. Many of these smack of utter desperation – they are so weary of promises (for example) to release more spectrum being made from year to year that they wonder if there is a simple lack of capacity preventing it from happening.

Over and over again they say that this or that “must” happen, in some cases even insisting that it must be done by the first quarter of 2021, which is to say immediately. Gradually these recommendations become more and more sweeping – e.g. “strengthen the project design and implementation capacity of government departments”, “restore governance to top infrastructure SOEs”, “create a skilled and professional public service” or “strengthen municipal management and oversight institutions”. Each such recommendation really requires a five year plan of its own or, in some cases, a twenty-five year plan.

Indeed, one wonders how serious the NPC is. Were they angry, desperate or just gigging with black humour as they wrote this? A whole section is entitled “proposals to stabilise and then accelerate towards Vision 2030”. Surely that must be a joke? Can anyone really make such a statement with a straight face? Equally, the Commissioners inveigh sternly about the over-riding importance of education. Yet their deputy chairman, Malegapuru William Makgoba ,single-handedly destroyed a major university. It would be nice to think that everyone shared the joke about this.

Cyril Ramaphosa was an enthusiastic member of the original NPC which drafted the NDP and presumably he will be a key reader of this Report. At a very early stage the NPC effectively has to face the fact that the NDP’s goals for 2030 will in no case be met, but they then insist that these goals must nevertheless be maintained, thus holding up a mirror to society, saying “this is what you could and should have achieved”.

That may sound bold but if there is to be any further Report one cannot help but feel that a far greater effect would be achieved if the NPC formally recommended the abandoning of all such targets because it is crystal clear that neither the ANC nor the government believes in them or has the slightest intention of trying to achieve them. That might at least trigger an honest and more revealing debate about which way we are going.

R.W. Johnson

[1] Economic Progress Towards the National Development Plan’s Vision 2030. Recommendations for Course Correction. Released December 2020.

[2] R.W. Johnson...South Africa’s Brave New World. The Beloved Country since the End of Apartheid (2009), p.6.