Things can fall apart

by Zubeida Jaffer*

A plan in the making has finally come together. When President Zuma addressed the nation, he brought together the different elements of work of his economic ministers. Last year’s SONA spoke about the government’s commitment to job creation. This year’s SONA has put flesh on the goal,spelling out a detailed vision of how that goal will be acheived.

Having recently spent some time as a communication specialist with the Minister of Economic Development, Mr Ebrahim Patel, I have been privy to developments within the economic cluster and  have listened to SONA with a far greater insight than I had in previous years when I was Parliamentary Editor for Independent Newspapers.

I am keen to hear what the Finance will say on Wednesday (tomorrow). He will have to indicate whether this ambitious plan will  outstrip the country’s available resources, financial and otherwise.

Minister’s Patel and Gigaba have made public their views of how to raise the funds for the massive infrastructure stimulus proposed. Minister Gordhan will have to give some indication of how Treasury will allocate funds for the plan. Last year, he dedicated that Budget Review to job creation. Will the Budget Review this week focus on Infrastructure spend?

While there is rightly a degree of scepticism in the public domain about whether this ambitious plan can be achieved, let us put this aside for a moment and see what it is actually saying so that we know what the president is asking the country to work towards.

At a policy level, it connects the elements of the  New Growth Path to the National Planning Commission’s Vision 2030. Vision 2030 calls for improving the mining industry by building new rail lines to transport coal and boosting port activity by building the infrastructure to import liquifide natural gas.(EXPAND) The NPC believes the country can end poverty by 2030, nearly triple GDP and lower the unemployment rate to single digits. President Zuma’s recent speech shifts our focus in that direction.

He has placed infrastructure spend at the centre of the drive to create jobs. This is nothing new. We were able to do this in the run-up to the 2010 Soccer World Cup and today many of us use the modern airport facilities that were built at the time. What is new is that the New Growth Path has identified some of the missing elements. During the World Cup a major opportunity was lost because we had not put in place a local procurement policy. At the end of last year, business, labour and government signed a local procurement accord making a firm commitment to buying local. In other words, having the t-shirts for the World Cup made in China will no longer be possible. All business entities, trade unions and government departments will have to make sure that they procure locally. This has the possibility of stimulating local manufacturing on a large scale. Efforts will be made to build some component parts of the massive railway infrastructure locally. Similar efforts will be made when it comes to construction of rail carriages.

There is a focus on a mining belt that responds to the huge demand for our iron ore, manganese and coal internationally. Not only will efforts be made to put in place the infrastructure, attention will be given to the mobilisation of communities along those corridors to see how they can best benefit. For more than a century, the mining industry has had no obligation to develop communities in their immediate surrounds. In fact it is virtually solely responsible for the disruption of communities as men were forced to leave their families to enter the money economy. Family and community networks at the heart of South African societies were effectively distroyed. We continue to deal with the costs of these policies.

Fortunately now we have a mining community that stands as a beacon of hope and a model for others to emulate.The Royal Bofokeng (150,000 strong) in the North West Province is at the cutting edge of a movement to empower communities who live on or near resource rich land. They have gone as far as to say publicly that they intend to be a self-sustaining community by 2020.

For years now much of our focus has been external. Vision 2030 acknowledges that we have to draw strength from our communities and our own resources. The elements required to make this a reality are bubbling to the surface.

The question will always be will we be able to pull this off as a country?

It depends once again on having a single-minded commitment to implementing this plan. This year will be particularly tough because politics may cloud the air and blurr the vision. As we know, the ruling party heads towards its major Mangaung Conference in December and this potentially could result in political shenaninagans dominating the headlines and distracting some in government from their core focus. This aside, the headaches and challenges that this plan will bring will be enormous. We can expect that the Minister Gordhan will once again have to grapple with how to get value for money for every cent spent. He will have to tell us whether his department has the capacity to deal with the misspending of funds reported in all provinces the past year. The strength of the Auditor-General’s office made it possible for the country to become immediately aware of the disastrous over-spending. While Minister Gordhan has waded into the mess announcing measures to deal with it, he nevertheless will have to assure a nervous public that the interventions will work. The challenges he has will essentially be the same challenges faced by the infrastructure build package. Our institutions are not evenly strong at all levels. How do we build institutional capacity at the same time when we require these entities to deliver? Outside expertise does not necessarily solve the long-term problem of institutional development.

Reports of corruption have sent shivers up our spines. Fortunately the recent civil society announcement that it has set up Corruption Watch and the ANC in KwaZulu Natal’s call for offenders to be named are glimmers of hope. Finance Minister Gordhan will no doubt report back on inter-ministerial progress made in tightening government’s efforts to clamp down on this scourge.

The next few years will be interesting to watch and see if the plan unfolded will come to fruition. As always, things can fall apart. For our sakes and the sakes of our children, I hope that it does not.

*Veteran journalist Zubeida Jaffer is currently Writer-in-Residence at the University of the Free State.(UFS).

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