Policy coherence is still a pipe dream in SA

First Published in Business Day on   September 2nd, 2021   |   by   Isaah Mhlanga

Policy coherence is still a pipe dream in SA

Our policymakers should be learning from China’s leaders and the clarity of their overarching agenda

Chinese leaders rejuvenated the idea of common prosperity in August, a notion previous leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, alluded to repeatedly in the 1950s and 80s. It is the idea that China’s citizens must all share the prosperity of the Chinese economy through striking a balance between efficiency brought about by capital and fairness for labour; through material being and culture; and through prosperity not just for a few, nor an absolute equality in the distribution.         

The clarity of the Chinese leaders’ overarching policy agenda is something SA policymakers should emulate to help provide the policy certainty that has been absent over the past decade. The coherence in their communication of policy removes confusion about the intended goals. Their sequencing of implementation of policy, which has been the case for the last three decades, has produced the intended results. Finally, their ability to make and live with the hard trade-offs has prevented them from being distracted by the sideshows of dissenting views within their ranks.

SA’s economic policy pronouncements still lack an overarching objective to guide everything government does. Implicitly it is there, but if any business must scramble to figure it out capital will always do what it does best, which is pursue profit and undermine everything in its path that reduces maximum profitability. Policy coherence is still a pipe dream in SA, as demonstrated by the release of the Green Paper on Comprehensive Social Security & Retirement Reform by the department of social development on August 18, and its subsequent withdrawal on August 31.

Withdrawing a policy proposal is good if its contents are impractical and have not gone through the requisite processes. However, when different departments of the same government and governing party disagree publicly, it demonstrates incoherence that confuses business, labour and civil society. That is what happened when the National Treasury came out and said it was not official government policy. This is the kind of stuff that makes investors wonder which part is government and which is rogue. It also demonstrates a rupture in the process of how policy moves from concept to implementation.

This blunder is simple to fix. Operation Vulindlela is already cutting red tape and unblocking unnecessary bottlenecks in policy implementation in energy, transport and ports, and the results are permeating. Mandate that every policy decision that has financial implications must go through the National Treasury and then Operation Vulindlela before it goes to parliament, and the communication debacle and resulting confusion we saw over the past two weeks would disappear. Then, policy uncertainty would be reduced.

Allow me to digress. I know the supremacy of the National Treasury

, finance minister and his staff over other departments is not politically acceptable. However, the reality is that the Treasury, just like the CFO in a private company, is not like any other department. Let there be no confusion: if the Treasury fails to manage the fiscus the country will fail in its objectives. 

Back to the overarching policy agenda. If I were to impose only one overarching policy it would be the complete eradication of poverty over the next decade. The objective is simple. Every South African of working age who can work must be able to find work and be paid a minimum of R1,300 a month, essentially the amount that would eradicate poverty.

Community policing marshalls, police reservists, teacher assistants and environmental cleanup specialists are the type of jobs young people could do to earn a living above the poverty line. A free cash transfer for life should simply not be an option.  Of course, this would still require solving SA’s energy deficiency, water infrastructure and transport network problems, which would reduce the cost of living for all.

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