NPC on Nation-Building

‘NPC is what South Africa needs’

In June of this year, Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel released the highly-anticipated first report of the National Planning Commission (NPC) since its establishment in 2010, entitled simply the Diagnostic Overview.

The Commission’s mandate, as captured in a Green Paper first tabled in 2009, includes strengthening government’s ability to plan for the long-term, increasing coherence and prioritisation across departments, and mobilising South Africans around a set of common national goals and values.

The Overview sets out nine key challenges facing South Africa, which have been identified by 25 appointed NPC Commissioners. These are, in broad terms: high unemployment; low educational quality for black people in particular; inadequate infrastructure; significant spatial development challenges; a resource-intensive and unsustainable growth path; an ailing public health system, unable to cope with the national disease burden; uneven public service performance; corruption; and finally, that South Africa remains a highly divided society, even after 17 years of democracy. The Overview also contains elements of the national draft Vision Statement for 2030.

Speaking in Parliament, Manuel framed the release of the Diagnostic Overview as the beginning of a process of ‘engagement about our collective future as a nation,’ and one that will involve ‘dialogue, consultation, debate and analysis.’

According to the report, it is hoped that this will lead to contributions, and ultimately broad acceptance and support of the 2030 vision. This engagement process appears to have begun with considerable steam over the last few months: in addition to several provincial consultations, the Commission recently hosted an online NPC Jam. With more than 10 300 logins and 8 700 individual posts over a 72-hour period, many young people, the Commission has described the Jam as the ‘biggest online dialogue ever held in Africa.’

The release of the Diagnostic Overview represents an important starting point in the work of the NPC, as do these first consultations. And while it will be very important to intensively analyse the findings of these consultations, I would also suggest that few in South Africa would disagree with the Commission’s initial prognosis.

We know that there is an urgent need to improve education and skills development, and increase labour market participation. We know that service delivery varies significantly, and is not universally equitable, transparent or efficient for all citizens. We also know that we need to begin building more inclusive and productive cities, which are also sustainable.

In fact, some among us might impatiently look forward to the prospect of ‘quicker fixes’ before 2030. But our appetite for ‘quick fixes’ is exactly what the NPC aims to mitigate, particularly when these come from different corners of government, and even at times appear to be competing or contradictory.

In this sense, the role of the Commission will be to reign in, sharpen, streamline and generally cohere policy and programmatic initiatives across various departments and agencies, into a surer direction for the state as a whole going forward.

Although a relatively new body, the NPC’s path – perhaps ironically at times – will be eased in some sectors by the tried and tested, and sometimes discarded, interventions, policies and programmes of the recent past.

From the RDP and Batho Pele, to GEAR, JIPSA, ASGISA, BEE, OBE and the New Growth Path, South Africa has chalked up both successes and lessons learnt in the fields of human, physical and economic development, even if these are of the ‘what not to do’ variety in the worst case scenarios. These focal areas also have legislative and policy homes in dedicated national and provincial departments.

More elusive, perhaps, will be addressing the challenge of overcoming South Africa’s deep social divisions. Brought to life in the Constitution, this cross-cutting challenge occupies a more nebulous, grey policy space shared by various agencies, including the Presidency, the departments of Social Development, Justice and Constitutional Development, and Arts and Culture among others, and the Chapter Nine and other independent institutions.

Further, the Diagnostic Overview remains just that – an overview – and will require an additional keen and incisive dissection of the current state of affairs before responses or future plans are developed, particularly with regard to the challenge of social division.

Much of the focus of the Overview in this regard, as well as of the subsequently-released Nation Building Diagnostic, is on race, as the foremost social cleavage in the country today. Both documents also refer to social fault lines created by language, ethnicity, urbanisation, gender and patriarchy, and economic class, the Overview finds that the ‘major dividing line is still race.’

Certainly, there can be no question that divisions along historically-defined race lines persist. Further, there is no doubt that racism, prejudice and stereotyping remain sources of lurking rot in post-apartheid South Africa.

However, recent research also suggests that sources of social division are in fact complex and changing, and have not remained static since 1994. Earlier this year, the nationally-representative Reconciliation Barometer survey found that a majority of South Africans believe that economic inequality – and not race, ethnicity, language, or religion – is the biggest division in South Africa today.

This percentage increased from 25% in 2010, to 32% in 2011. A further 22% of South Africans believe the biggest division in the country is that between members of different political parties, while 20% believe it exists between citizens of different historically-defined race groups.

The Reconciliation Barometer survey also evaluates public perceptions regarding changes in South Africa since 1994. In 2011, 49% of South Africans believed relations between different historically-defined race groups have improved since the transition to democracy. Only 20% believe that the gap between rich and poor has narrowed during this time, and in fact, 49% believe economic inequality has worsened.

Importantly, the Reconciliation Barometer also consistently finds that interaction, and the development of close social relationships and friendships across historic race lines, is significantly linked to income inequality. Socialisation is dramatically more prevalent among South Africans from affluent households with high living standards, and declines enormously among poorer households.

These findings are also confirmed by the narratives of ordinary South Africans around the country, as captured in a recent qualitative study on non-racialism conducted by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. In focus group discussions, numbers of South Africans suggested that ‘it’s money that tears us apart’, and that ‘if we can’t be one in our economy, we can never be one as a nation.’

As the results of the Reconciliation Barometer suggest, some felt that socialising across socioeconomic class lines is difficult, because ‘if you’re in the same class bracket you connect’: others explained that ‘rich people find it easier to accept each other,’ and that ‘all poor people of all races have a lot in common.’

A final stark and important finding was the view among some South Africans that race matters much less for the economic elite. Research participants commented that they felt ‘rich people do not care about race issues,’ that ‘the rich do not bother about race and colour’ and that ‘rich people don’t care about race because they have money and they can do what they like.’

Taken together, these research results show a changing social landscape. They allude to both the possibility of new social formations and solidarity groups, and emergent and deepening sites of exclusion – fault lines that, if underestimated or overlooked, would be at our collective peril as we attempt to work towards a more inclusive, cohesive and unified South Africa.

That the NPC has begun to frame this critical national conversation is an important first step, as is its call for ongoing public engagement on questions including how best to build a strong national identity that transcends race, and how to reverse deepening inequality. It is now important that civil society, public and academic institutions, and citizens take the initiative to respond.

A version of this article first appeared on the SABC website here.

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