Manuel to Take Lead in Shaping the Future

Cape Times (South Africa), May 12, 2009 | Go to article overview

Manuel to Take Lead in Shaping the Future

BYLINE: Saliem Fakir

President Jacob Zuma's conciliatory tone and the selection of his cabinet is not just symbolism, but a genuine attempt to assure his critics that he is capable of being a good president, if not a better one than his predecessor.

One thing is plain - he hasn't surrounded himself with yes-men and women, but with people known to have minds of their own and who will fight for every inch of policy and strategy.

Some figures on the left who mounted vociferous attacks on Thabo Mbeki's economic policy have been handed key ministries and a chance to prove their worth.

In his inaugural speech, Zuma emphasised the importance of delivery, especially during this period of global economic downturn. He also pointed to the need for ensuring a sound delivery system.

The co-ordination of all of this will fall under the National Planning Commission to be established in the Presidency and backed up by a performance, monitoring, evaluation and administration unit.

Some political commentators have heckled over the idea of a planning commission because it harks back to images of central command and control.

The truth is that the idea of the commission is not a Zuma-era creation - the process of studying other planning commissions, like that in India, began during the last year or so of the Mbeki era.

In Britain, Tony Blair introduced a strong policy and planning function, now continued under Gordon Brown, although it was not described as a planning commission. The main purpose was to ensure policy coherence.

Much of the policy co-ordination and planning took place at No10 Downing Street.

Too much is being read into the word "planning". The commission's role is to be more one of foresight, co-ordination, anticipating vulnerabilities, and ensuring more enhanced policy debates. Its role is strategic and necessary, especially for a country with limited resources.

As Arthur Lewis, a Nobel Laureate for Economics from the Caribbean Islands, noted in a book, The Principles of Economic Planning (1969), it is not as if no economy is planned.

Some responses to the new planning commission have been spuriously reactionary.

It is well known that the US economy is being meticulously planned out of its crisis.

Lewis noted that both right and left governments in history had always used the state to overplan or underplan.

There are no fixed solutions or blueprints. Planning needs have to fit their context and be adjusted accordingly.

If that weren't the case, the US would head for collapse.

It is clear that no government can operate without a strategy and plan. Nor can any corporation or firm. Critical questions should revolve around what form the plan would take, its desired outcomes and how it would be executed.

As Lewis reminds us, "planning by direction is much inferior to planning by inducement". It is the balance between the two that must be debated internally within the planning commission and other line ministries.

It is not as if we can do without a co-ordinated strategy and plan against which targets can be measured and performance assessed. We are, however, unlikely to have "planning by direction", like the old Soviet model.

The main complaint against Mbeki was that the Presidency under his watch was primarily driving policy without proper, as well as in-depth, consultation and debate with Luthuli House. Planning was being done in the absence of ANC oversight.

The second was that planning was subject to austerity measures driven entirely on the basis of fiscal policy and in which the Treasury had become the de facto planning commission - giving the minister of finance, seemingly, far more power than the other ministries.

Despite this, Zuma has given Trevor Manuel the job. No doubt the media and markets will be appeased that the government does not intend anything ominous - their man is in charge. …

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