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Time to prioritise pragmatism and hard work

Sun, 3 February 2013 17:54
by Itumeleng Mahabane
Columns

Commission wants “our nation’s energies focused on attacking poverty and expanding a robust, entrepreneurial and innovative economy”. Sign me up. Certainly, it is better leadership language than the toxic and near satirical vitriol those who should provide leadership unleash at the slightest provocation.
The National Development Plan (NDP), which appears to have been adopted as SA’s core strategic economic document, is long. Despite my best endeavours, I have been unable to find the time to read it comprehensively. From what I have gathered, though, my most endearing sense is that it is possibly the most pragmatic, and human, of the economic policy documents SA has produced, notwithstanding that the Reconstruction and Development Plan and the Growth Employment and Redistribution document were arguably simpler and more conceptually concise. The NDP has also possibly been communicated more inclusively than any economic policy document, with the exception of the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for SA.
In part, the pragmatism and humanity of the document may be that it suggests an influence by Amartya Sen’s work on capability. That concept, of bottom-up economic development informed by building individual capabilities and encouraging individual economic aspirations, as opposed to the state patronage and service delivery option we are pursuing at present, is hugely significant. One of the most debilitating obsessions we have is the belief in a bureaucratic hallucination of uniform development that takes no cognisance of the diverse demographics of SA, the deficiencies in human development and resources competencies and the institutional and performance limitations in much of the public sector.
The NDP is designed to encourage the creation of long-term planning competencies as a 20-year vision. Its recommendations cannot be executed at once and the totality of its ambitions can be achieved only over a generation. So it might be a useful exercise to look at what can be tackled immediately, including incorporating early wins that would help give it broad-based traction. An obvious starting point would be to go through its key targets and implementable action plans. Beginning with the first section on “Economy and Employment” seems a logical route. There are nine actions and 17 sub-actions.
The first action is to “create an environment for sustainable economic growth”, and its first sub-action is to “reduce the cost of living for households and business through microeconomic reforms”. Both of these are most achievable as virtually everything required is in the government’s control. It is about improving regulatory certainty and increasing the efficiency but reducing the contributory costs of network infrastructure. There is not much new thinking that is required here. There is a body of work on how to improve the regulatory environment to enhance economic efficiencies. Failure to implement this action within a year will only be the result of a lack of focus and intent.
The second action point, to “gain global market share” is slightly tricky and likely to be contested. Nevertheless, it is important that we begin thinking about increasing global market share as a core strategic priority. Accessing more global markets means selling more goods, which requires investing to increase capacity. Investing in increasing capacity begins to deal with the “investment strike” everyone is hot and bothered about.
The third action, “active labour market policies”, is another that should be easy to execute in principle and with determined leadership, but may run up against political and ideological resistance. Broadening the Expanded Public Works Programme will be uncontested. We have seen the resistance to a proposed tax subsidy for new workers. Sub-action eight, a more open immigration policy to expand high level skills, is also likely to stall, notwithstanding the fact that there is hardly a glut of highly qualified engineers, project managers and chartered accountants rushing to SA and despite the fact that our education system will not supply the high demand in each of these and many other areas.
It will also be interesting to see if the rather conservative proposed changes to “labour market regulation” happen. It would seem incongruous to the African National Congress’s vision of society that the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration’s resources should be consumed by protected elites at the cost of overburdening the system to the detriment of inclusive benefit.
So, how action-orientated is the government going to be on implementing the NDP? There is little reason the first four actions of “Economy and Employment” could not be delivered in the first half of this year, as virtually none of it is new. It is time to abandon delusions of grandeur and exceptionalism and prioritise pragmatism and hard work.