The NDP and Asking for the Moon

It is generally wise to beware of “the big plan”. This past century has seem too many grand ideas, some millenarian, that have overridden the common sense and rights of ordinary folk and often brought about misery on a totalitarian scale.

In SA, the grandest plan of all was that of “separate development” but the democratic state has also seen its fair share of overarching ideas.

Our constitution, sometimes wrongly described as “the most liberal in the world” prescribes government policy to an extent done nowhere else. What it claims are “rights” includes such things as housing, education and health care, encouraging, notes Constitutional Court judge Edwin Cameron approvingly, government to provide much of these things. In effect, constitutional negotiators who wanted a social democratic state tried to impose this on SA for all time.

We’ve also had in these two decades since 1994 a reconstruction and development plan, a growth, employment and redistribution plan, and adoption by the ruling part of the need for a “national democratic revolution” that sees all “levers of power” and institutions controlled by political appointees. Now we have a new totem – the national development plan (NDP) that is supposed to guide government policy across all sectors of society all the way to 2030, ignoring the wishes of pesky voters in the elections between.

Running to almost 500 pages and so read by very few, it has been adopted by the cabinet, parliament and the ruling party’s national conference, as well as by organized business, although it finds an enemy in the Congress of SA Trade Unions. Given Cosatu’s fixation on protecting the jobs of its middle class membership, and its suspicion of economic freedom, it’s difficult to see why it dislikes the NDP so much.

As SA Institute of Race Relations CE John Kane-Berman notes, the NDP is anything but a call for a free economy. Rather, it wants “public-private partnerships” across almost every realm of the economy, often with policy first cleared by the very groups whose immediate interests are most threatened by greater choice – organized business and organized labour.

The NDP wants more land reform, a national health insurance scheme, strong industrial policies, more state capital investment, and ongoing “protection” of local businesses. It cockily assumes reversals in employment trends in mining and manufacturing, even while it avoids privatization of the country’s 715 state-owned entities.

It is in line with government proposals for a state role on nuclear energy, aerospace, furniture design, and even “beneficiation” of crocodile skins, along with national music and cosmetics strategies. We should all do physical exercise on the second Saturday of every month. Nothing is too small to be left out of the NDP, unless it’s too big to put in.

So it doesn’t propose dismantling SA’s over-bearing labour laws, seems happy with racial laws for business, has watered down its own ideas for disciplining teachers, and utterly ignores SA’s thrusting private health sector. It even introduces a new “right”, to work, not something our constitution even tries.

Like the best big ideas, the NDP doesn’t cost itself. Says Kane-Berman: “There are no scenarios about tax revenue, or the budget deficit, or public debt. To endorse the NDP amounts to giving the government a blank cheque”.

– Paul Pereira (first published in The Citizen, 2 July 2013)