Government and business need to work together

When the National Development Plan (NDP) was adopted in 2012, it was greeted with a lot of excitement. It was the only document, as far as I know, that was adopted by most political parties, with the SACP being one of the notable exceptions. There was general agreement that Trevor Manuel and his 25 independent members of the National Planning Commission (NPC) had done a sterling job of painting the society that we wished to see in South Africa in 2030.

Since then there has been a perception that not much has happened with the implementation of the NDP. At a conference in Gauteng this week, hosted by Topco Media and supported by the NPC, government representatives were at pains to say that this is not so. They pointed out that the NDP informs all government activities, including their strategic medium term expenditure framework and the priorities outlined by the President in his state of the nation address in February.

They instead pointed fingers at the business community, saying that they are not doing enough to promote the NDP.

I facilitated the two-day conference and, as I sat there listening to speaker after speaker talking about the need for business and government to work together, I found myself thinking: why are they not working together? Is the mistrust between government and business so huge that they cannot work together to turn this country into the place envisaged in the NDP?

I realised that, more often than not, government is only interested in promoting its own interests while business is only interested in the profit margin. Both end up saying what they think others want to hear, and hear only what they want to hear. A lot of the time they end up talking past each other.

Which is why I love someone like Matthews Phosa, who understands government and business and who is still enough of an activist to care about the future of our country and not only care about making profits, even though he is now firmly ensconced in business.

He has no political ambition, having already being the Premier of Mpumalanga and the treasurer-general of the ANC. My sense is that his comments are made honestly and with the best interests of the country at heart.

Phosa, who spoke on a panel with Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba and SA Revenue Services Commissioner Tom Moyane, said the NDP was not a plan for government, but for society and that “we can and must make it work”.

Among the things standing in the way of the successful implementation of the NDP, Phosa said, were “the poverty of capable, committed and visionary leadership”, “lip service being paid to the NDP”, the lack of a “capable state that is strong on governance” and “deployment of politicians to executive operational positions”. These things, he said, were “hurting our ability to implement the NDP”.

Phosa argued that for economic transformation to take hold in South Africa, we must start treating each other with dignity and respect.

The “most significant outstanding issue on our agenda of liberation” was to deal with the unequal society that we find in South Africa, he said.

“It is clear that government cannot create economic growth and prosperity on its own, and is also clear that the private sector cannot create economic growth and prosperity in isolation.

“Economic growth and prosperity is only possible when all role-players overcome issues of trust and other obstacles to work together in order to achieve a common objective that will bring prosperity to South Africa.”

Phosa said that South Africa could not “cling to the successes of the past to achieve our goals”. He said South Africa needs to work towards being the number one economy on the continent once again.

“We need to decide, as a nation, whether we want to be governed by history or the future that we can create ourselves. Can we continue to blame apartheid while we have the power and the opportunity to shape our future?”

Phosa said that South Africa has “been spared the humiliation that accompanies an investment downgrade in the market – for now. To avoid a downgrade in the future, we must take matters in our own hands and not wait for guidance or humiliation from the rating agencies.”

He drew loud applause when he quoted the Seven Social Sins published by Mahatma Gandhi: wealth without work; pleasure without conscience; knowledge without character; commerce without morality; science without humanity; worship without sacrifice; and politics without principle.

In all likelihood, the leadership in the ruling party and in government will probably react with anger to Phosa’s assertion that they paid lip service to the NDP. He said he had previously asked the leadership of our country to make the NDP central to all government’s activities and budgets and to evaluate the implementation of the NDP in performance agreements with ministers and senior officials. In his input, Radebe said that they were already doing this.

All the government representatives at the conference proclaimed loudly that they are implementing the NDP. Maybe the problem is in the way government is communicating their progress and their plans. It is possible that they are winking in the dark. But that is probably the subject of another column.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on 11 June 2016)