Trudi Makhaya Columnist
Cyril Ramaphosa supporters celebrate after he was announced as the new ANC president in Johannesburg. Picture: MASI LOSI
Cyril Ramaphosa supporters celebrate after he was announced as the new ANC president in Johannesburg. Picture: MASI LOSI

I caught myself uttering a phrase the other day that would be a great contender for "cliché of the year" in public discourse: policy uncertainty. It has become too convenient to lay the blame for the economy’s poor showing and low confidence in the economy’s prospects at the feet of policy uncertainty.

It is legitimate to argue that the direction of economic policy making is not clear.

Principles that have been the hallmark of South African economic policy making, such as fiscal prudence, have come into question in recent years.

The doors of what was once the "ministry of utmost certainty" were thrown wide open in an unsettling manner. In areas such as land reform, education and skills development and spatial planning, it is fair to argue that work needs to be done to provide policy direction.

Yet, in saying that policy uncertainty is pervasive, are we analysts simply failing to hold the government and the ANC to account for stated and established policy positions?

The National Development Plan (NDP) is quite clear on an extensive array of policy matters. When the government fails to implement the plan, or contradicts it, is this a matter of policy uncertainty or a manifestation of a lack of political will and a failure of implementation?

As I write this, if all goes to plan we will soon know the identity of the next leaders of the ANC. In many quarters, the outcome of the elective conference has been hotly anticipated because it is expected to put paid to policy uncertainty. But if one proceeds from the premise that the nation already has a few clear policy statements — not only the NDP but also more granular strategies such as the New Growth Path and the Industrial Policy Action Plan — it becomes clear that the overarching challenge facing the next political administration is to work through the political economy of implementation.

It will become important to understand why the executive has got away with the poor implementation of established policy. This issue is closely linked with the menace of corruption and the mechanisms of accountability.

There are areas of economic policy that could benefit from clarity. Smoothing out the contradictions between the policy frameworks mentioned above is important. But that is policy uncertainty with a small "p". Despite protestations about policy uncertainty, the nation also suffers from policy fatigue.

A new starry-eyed approach is unlikely to be welcomed by a weary business community and a citizenry that is under economic pressure.

The high-level panel on the assessment of key legislation, led by former president Kgalema Motlanthe, has put forward a set of recommendations that include codifying the NDP into legislation. This seems to be a good start towards cementing the plan into the national project it should be.

This is especially important in a climate in which the real driver of uncertainty is political contestation. Elevating the plan above politics and into law will create an obligation on this and future administrations to implement the plan, or to amend it formally through multiparty deliberation in the legislature. It is already quite established that the two main tendencies in economic policy making are extractive rent-seeking and evidence-based, outcomes-driven policy making. A truly reformist leadership will need to extinguish corruption in all segments of South African
life and pursue clean and
open government.

The coming years should also be an ideology-free period with a focus on outcomes, not revolutionary posturing. Developing the government’s capability to deliver on the many issues on which there is already sufficient consensus in society will be, to borrow from writer Arundhati Roy, the most radical act.

• Makhaya is CEO of Makhaya Advisory.

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