Let’s change how policy ideas are contested so we can implement those we agree on
SA is choking on a multitude of economic policy proposals presented by various sectors of society: business, labour, social justice advocacy groups, academics and the government. So much so that the contest over which ideas to implement has hindered progress. There is a need to change how policy ideas are contested to ensure implementation of those on which there is broad consensus.
If we look through the most recent policy proposals from the ANC, Business for SA (B4SA) and the so-called 100 academics, there are common themes where there is no disagreement. However, all sectors of society outside the government have presented policy proposals, many of which have already been tabled by the National Treasury in its economic strategy paper and re-emphasised by the ANC policy document. The ideas in many of these proposals are not new, nor fundamentally different to those already within the government.
Some ideas, such as those from academics, are not implementable as they assume no constraint on funding and do not take into account intergenerational fairness. Stellenbosch economics professor Johan Fourie has put forward a compelling case for why the ideas of the 100 academics are not well thought through.
With regard to how big business has approached the policy debate, a different approach could have been taken to achieve a collaborative spirit between the government and the private sector. Instead of presenting a full set of policy proposals, repeating some that have already been put forward by the government, business could have opted to simply provide a list of which economic policies proposed by the government it agrees with and what it needs from the government to make SA viable for investment.
After that, business could have listed those of its proposals that the government did not touch on and spell out the government’s role in those proposals and the commitment it would make once the government had fulfilled its end of the bargain. In short, business could have opted to build on the government’s policy proposals instead of putting forward a completely separate document.
SA has no shortage of ideas; there is an oversupply in SA. However, in most conversations with policymakers there is a recurrent question: what are the other policy proposals the government can look at? It almost seems as if there is a sense that existing policy proposals are not enough. But in truth the lack of implementation of existing proposals has prompted the request for new proposals.
It is time to shift gears and obsess about implementation of ideas already on the table. We know unemployment, inequality and poverty are the biggest issues we face. We know we need a low-cost economy with affordable data and efficient transport networks, including ports, railways and harbours. We know infrastructure investment is crucial to drive economic growth and job creation.
We also know policy certainty is crucial to attract private sector investment. Part of that policy certainty is dealing with corruption, not only to prevent wastage but to give comfort to the private sector that the billions of rand needed for the mega investment plans will not vanish.
Any policy document that points out these obvious things we know will not add anything to the discourse. It’s time to implement what we have and stop looking for silver bullets — there are none. As finance minister Tito Mboweni once said, let’s get on with it, time is running out. Over and above the time that is running out, the longer the coronavirus crisis lasts the more different the destination the economy reaches will be, and that will require a different approach and sequencing of policies.
SA needs one policy document across society, with new ideas added, infeasible ones removed and those that have support across sectors implemented. Surely it can’t be that difficult, for the sake of progress.