An interview with Tshediso Matona
Secretary of the National Planning Commission
Urgency needed on the road to 2030
By Ryland Fisher
Tshediso Matona has been director-general of two government departments – trade and industry, and public enterprises – and has run one of South Africa’s biggest and highly controversial state-owned companies, Eskom.
But the quietly-spoken executive feels that his latest challenge is special because it gives him an opportunity to impact on the future of our country.
Matona was appointed late last year as the secretary of planning in the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, which means that he has to oversee the day-to-day running of the National Planning Commission (NPC) and the implementation of the National Development Plan (NDP).
“We don’t spend enough time thinking about the future, whether we are in the public or private sector. We need to envision it but, most importantly, we need to know how to prepare ourselves to realise the vision of the future South Africa,” Matona said in an interview at his office in the Union Buildings in Pretoria.
“I come from the generation that was drawn into politics and the struggle by the 1976 student uprisings. As young people we were already concerning ourselves about big national issues and once the bug bites you, it doesn’t leave you. You invariably set about the course of your life being concerned about national matters and occupied by them.
“I was an activist for most of my youth. I went to university deliberately to equip myself to better serve and I’ve had an excellent and enriching career in government.
“Over time I’ve seen a number of plans emerge in government to implement the vision the Constitution. We have a good Constitution, but we must make its ideals a reality.
“We created a number of strategies, from the RDP, through to GEAR and ASGISA. When I was at DTI we developed an Industrial Policy Action Plan and when the Department of Economic Development was established, they developed a New Growth Path.
“The difference between those strategies and NDP is that they are all concerned about one or the other aspect of the economy or society. What the NDP has done is to pull all these things into one, because it does not propose to substitute or render redundant all other sectoral plans. It frames everything and articulates it in a manner where we can see all the steps that we must take.
“In the NDP, we can see all the critical fault lines of our economy and society and what we need to do to deal with each of those problems, including the challenges identified in the other plans.
“It also has a unique possibility to be a unifying plan that reflects our reality. It is going to take all of us acting in a coordinated manner, to deliver on the vision of the plan, not government or business alone. This is very exciting.
“We are living through difficult economic conditions which could have the effect of creating a sense of depression. For me the deeper the challenges become the more they remind us that we need to implement our plan.
“Every major challenge we are experiencing right now – from the economic downturn, unemployment, lack of investment, corruption – have been foreseen in the plan. They are discussed in great detail and the available wisdom in the country has been applied to those challenges.
“The issue now is that we must implement the plan. The current economic circumstances and related challenges remind us that we must implement the plan.”
Matona said his major focus since been appointed has been to get the 25 members of the National Planning Commission into action.
“I needed to get them to formulate an approach to how they are going to execute their mandate of overseeing the implementation of the plan. The previous commission created the plan and now we must deal with its implementation.
“In a sense they have a more difficult task. We have to work with them in thinking through how we approach implementation, recognising that they themselves are not an implementing agency.
“We have had to induct them into the NDP and how government works and, in that context, set out priorities. They now have now a set of priorities and a work programme behind each of those priorities.
“The major priority staring us in the face obviously is the economy. How do we transform our economy? How do we make it an inclusive and fair economy that’s growing? How do we tackle the issue of unemployment? How we deal with the youth challenge and the youth opportunity?
“The commissioners are looking at enterprise development and how we can deepen and broaden entrepreneurship. We’re not going to get very far as a country or as an economy if we don’t light up the entrepreneurial fires across our land.
“Enhancing the quality of life of our people is another area which cuts across the economy but also deals with the social development, social inclusion and the social wage.
“We’ve seen how through a range of policies of the state we have alleviated people’s living conditions that deteriorated under apartheid, leading to a sense of despair. It’s very rare now in our country to have a sense of despair because the state has deployed massive social relief through social grants and those sort of things.
“But we need to look at how we sustain that and how we can give hope to our people, empower them to become responsible for their own development and avoid dependencies on the state.
“The issue of social compact is absolutely critical. This speaks to the Vision 2030 Summit. How can organised business, organised labour, government and civil society work together?
“How we can each bring what we can do for our country? But it’s also about compacting, which places a level of responsibility and accountability because we know that we are going to require compromises and trade-offs to achieve what we desire to change our country.
“That’s a broad canvas of issues which the commission has outlined and the work that we are doing here in this Department of Planning and Monitoring is to support this agenda through research, technical analysis and arranging the necessary networks for the commission into government and outside of government.
“It’s been an exceedingly inspiring early few months. Most of the work obviously is going to be undertaken over the next five years or so of the tenure of this current commission. I couldn’t be in a more exciting and ideal space considering all of the 20 plus years of experience which I’m now able to deploy behind this singularly important task of advancing the NDP.”
Matona believes that the government remains firmly committed to the NDP.
“All government’s work right now is directly inspired by the NDP. If you recall after the plan was done and the Minister of Planning, Trevor Manuel, handed it over to the President, it then went to Cabinet and Parliament where it was overwhelmingly endorsed.
“Cabinet decided that all plans of government should align. This department was given the task of assessing government departmental plans for alignment with the NDP.
“The current Medium Term Strategic Framework is built completely around the NDP. What is being done in, for instance, the Department of Trade and Industry is intended to advance the NDP. What is being done in the Department of Energy or in the Department of Education is intended to advance the NDP.
“I was very inspired when I listened to the budget votes of several departments, where the ministers prefaced their speeches with references to the NDP.
“We have embarked on the correct path. It clearly has to deepen further and will for as long as we keep the spotlight on it and that’s part of my responsibility.
“I have to keep the spotlight on ensuring that the alignment gets entrenched in respect of one important measure, the resources. This means the extent to which the national budget supports it. It’s not enough to simply aspire to advancing the NDP if the resources are not being deployed to it.
“This is a top priority of the NPC and it’s a top priority of our Cabinet who have asked us to report on an ongoing basis the extent to which resources are being deployed and whether they’re being optimally utilised in that regard.
“I’m comfortable that government is committed to the NDP. With regard to private sector and the rest of society, I think a lot more work needs to be done.
“We saw an initial positive response by business to the NDP but not the sort of committed follow through with regards to action. By action I mean more than just the sort of day-to-day decisions, like investment decisions which are important, but investing deliberately with a view to realising the goals of the NDP. This speaks about sustainability and having a more long range view of things.
“In that context, they should also be partnering with government. The issue is how we partner with regards to what government and business can do.
“I’m encouraged by what I see as an emergence of initiatives, seeking to do something about the NDP. I’ve been exposed to a widespread concern within business that not enough is being done by themselves as a critical sector, but also between government and business.
“In the context of the current challenges it is critical that those partnerships are forged and focused on priorities that are facing us in this period.
“To really overcome the current circumstances we need a coalition for growth. It should not only be up to government or business on their own to address unemployment. We need all the parties around the table to outline a set of critical measures.
“That has now happened in response to the threat of a downgrade. I hope that that this continues because it should not be a once off thing. This partnership is going to require institutionalising in the body politic of our economy and society. I would also like to see us bringing organised labour into this discussion in a more robust manner.
“While one is aware that there is not a complete convergence of views and opinions around the NDP, there’s enough in it to keep us united and in coordinated action for the future of our country.”
The way to measure the success of the NDP, said Matona, was to have a set of indicators for each of the NDPs goals against which we could measure ourselves.
“For example, we should meet with the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) about how we deliver technology platforms to generate data on government performance.
“Let’s talk about growth, employment, health, education. We need a set of indicators. In the economy I think the critical indicator is employment creation. If the job numbers come through from the surveys and shows a decline, then we know that there are issues with measures we are implementing with regards to growing the economy.
“We can look much more closely at that and identify where the problems are. For instance, is it a problem of skills or infrastructure? That indicator on job creation can enable us to get to the critical and relevant constraints in that space.
“In the area of education, it could be the number of matriculants. Maybe there’s a relevant indicator with maths and science. The numbers have to be looking north if we are making progress. We know that the more science and maths matriculants you get, the more likely it is that you are going to get more engineers and accountants, which are the critical skills that our economy needs.
“Part of our unemployment problem is that our education system is not supplying the appropriate skills that the economy requires. There’s a structural disjuncture.
“Maths and science passes could be a very powerful indicator for the Minister of Basic Education. Very often we focus on what I call input indicators, such as the number of schools we build. It is an important indicator but what comes out of those schools should be more important.
“Implementing the plan must be about our dream across the board on those indicators. The problem is that some of these indicators are very inconsistent and they shift.
“You can do the same thing in the area of crime. There are many forms of crime. It may be that we come to a point where we say that all crime is a problem but we know that we are making South Africa more secure. We must see it in a reduced number of murder or rape, for instance.
“It is possible in each of the sectors that the plan addresses to come to a single set of indicators through which we should measure progress. We are not there yet but if we are implementing, then that’s the immediate thing.
“There should be some internal measures that the government should track. But what should be the measures that are tracked by the private sector and is it possible to build consensus around that? This is really the next big area of focus for the implementation of the NDP.”
Matona said it was understandable that there is a perception that not much has happened since the NDP was adopted in 2012. This could be because there has not been the necessary and consistent communication around the plan.
“We need ongoing communication and that’s where your work and the conference that you are hosting can make a contribution by making people aware, disseminating information and allowing role players who are doing different things to come together and share information.
“On the communication side there’s more that could be done and it’s an area that this current NPC has identified as a focal area. We are drawing GCIS (Government Communication) close to us in this regard, to use all platforms and channels of communication to bring awareness.
“We lost momentum in the transition between the two commissions. But going forward I’m very excited about the opportunities for us to put information in the public domain.
“The interesting thing is that the more people become aware of the NDP and the work that is being done, the more interest there is by people who want to play their part.
“I’d like to see a lot more of that among our young people. We should be making young people a targeted group for very intense communication around the plan because, after all, this is their plan. It is about communication, communication and more communication.”
Matona was not able to attend the Vision 2030 Summit in June because of a prior overseas commitment, but he did have a message for those attending.
“What I’d like to see as an outcome (of the Summit) is an affirmation of the relevance of the plan and a sense that at least from government’s point of view, it is a plan that is in action.
“It is a plan under implementation, even though we are still in early days, and all of us who are at the conference must leave with wanting to do more, irrespective of the sector from which they come.
“This plan is relevant, it speaks to our challenges, including the pressing one of the economy. We must be inspired to do more, recognising that there’s a long road ahead of us.
“Yet 2030 is not too far off, so that should be some sense of urgency as well, in terms of the actions required of all of us.”