Before compiling the National Development Plan (NDP), the drafters diagnosed South Africa’s socioeconomic predicament as follows: widespread poverty and extreme inequality persist; too few South Africans are employed; the quality of education for poor black South Africans is substandard; poorly located and inadequate infrastructure limits social inclusion and faster economic growth; South Africa’s growth path is highly resource-intensive and, hence, unsustainable; spatial challenges continue to marginalise the poor; the ailing public health system confronts a massive disease burden; the performance of the public service is uneven; corruption undermines State legitimacy and service delivery; and South Africa remains a divided society.
As the NDP is a government-led process, any mention of weak or compromised leadership was always unlikely. However, when the Diagnostic Overview was produced in 2011, leadership was arguably not perceived as the primary obstacle to social and economic progress. The African National Congress enjoyed (as it still does) a comfortable majority and was expected to remain unchallenged for years, if not decades (that may well have changed). While some in the governing party (including President Jacob Zuma) had the taint of corruption, the leadership was nevertheless mostly viewed as legitimate (which is no longer the case). The relationship between government and the other social partners was not overwhelmingly warm, but it was nevertheless relatively constructive (some in business even seemed to prefer Zuma’s jocular style to President Thabo Mbeki’s high-handedness). In other words, trust had not broken down to the point where cooperation was nigh impossible (this may no longer be the case, despite promises of post-reshuffle cooperation from business and labour).
As things currently stand, the country’s political leadership has become a binding constraint to building consensus on the reform agenda required to achieve the two main objectives outlined in the NDP: eliminating absolute poverty, by reducing (from 39% to zero) the proportion of households living on a monthly income of less than R419 a person; and reducing inequality, as reflected in an improvement in the Gini coefficient from 0.69 to 0.6.
That’s not to suggest that, with legitimate political leaders, South Africa could simply tap into some magic formula that would guarantee a successful – never mind a smooth – transition to a more inclusive economy. Shifting from the current economic structure, which still reflects many of the race-based injustices of colonialism and apartheid, will be difficult even in the presence of a social compact. It will depend on the willingness of all citizens to accept the need for change, on well-managed processes for sustaining consensus and, most importantly, on diligent implementation, which caters for policy correction should unintended effects arise.
However, without legitimate political leaders – ones who are fully occupied with pursuing national, rather than personal, interests – a key ingredient is missing.