|The Courier N° 160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)|
by Professor Willie Esterhuyse
The cornerstone of South Africa's Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) announced by President Nelson Mandela on May 24 1994, shortly after taking office, is people-centred development with an accent on modern infrastructure, health, education, housing and sanitation.
Lessons have already been learnt from teething troubles.
The RDP is the government's response to the massive socio-economic needs of the bulk of the South African population. It is foremost a strategic framework aimed at human development and restructuring the country's economy. It involves housing projects and programmes to improve the socioeconomic infrastructure covering clean water, electricity, public works, schools, urban renewal and primary health care. Empowerment programmes have been developed, for example; micro and small businesses, support for emergent farmers and skills training.
One of the main achievements of the RDP has been to sensitise South Africans to the plight of the poor. Apartheid, amongst other things, succeeded in keeping this out of sight, effectively locking the poor out of the system. A veil of ignorance prevailed among the privileged class. The RDP tore away the veil and has led to a willingness to participate in development and reconstruction programmes, especially in private sector circles. It is succeeding in prioritising South Africa's socio-economic challenges, as well as mobilising funding and organising a common and sustainable approach. Its most important achievement to date is probably the idea of partnerships in development between the state, private sector institutions and non-governmental organisations. Through the RDP, South Africans have accepted that they will have to 'run with the development ball'. They are also aware that the state cannot go it alone, nor should it act as a 'super' development agency. Thus, a very high premium is put on involving the private sector and other actors.
But many problems have already been encountered. Unfortunately, the RDP was seen by some as a quick-fix solution to South Africa's socio-economic difficulties. Expectations over delivery were too high. Red tape and a growing bureaucracy stifled the initiative early on. Frustrations among the poor quickly surfaced. Many of those who wanted to participate, and applied for RDP funding, were unable to develop viable business plans - a strict requirement to get funds. The launch of projects was further complicated by the absence, at one stage, of legitimate local and governmental structures.
But important lessons were learnt from the initial phases, in particular the need to involve people on the ground from day one - starting with the identification of needs, the design of a specific project and its execution. It was accepted that process is more decisive than the product. A second lesson was that a separate RDP office, with its own Ministry, complicated matters as far as delivery was concerned, tending to centralise development. This led to the announcement by President Mandela on March 28 1996 that the RDP office would be closed down. RDP programmes were thereafter integrated into the main budget administered by functional government agencies.
Another very important lesson was that socio-economic development and reconstruction had to go hand in hand with a dynamic macro-economic strategy - made public earlier this year. It was realised that one cannot have good projects in a bad policy environment - to quote a World Bank report.
In fact, it is generally accepted that the RDP, on its own, cannot launch South Africa on a road to sustainable and vigorous economic growth. We needed a twin-track approach.
The RDP has notched up a number of successes. The provision of clean water to rural and urban communities has gone a long way under the leadership of Minister Kadar Asmal - highlighting the fact that leadership strengthened by solid management, does make a difference. The electrification programme for low-income households, involving the parastatal, Eskom (Electricity Supply Commission), is another success story. The same goes for the Presidential projects, such as free health care for expectant mothers and infants, and some of the nutrition programmes. But the provision of housing for low-income groups has been less successful than anticipated. Rent and services boycotts, as well as unemployment, are some of the reasons for slow progress. Job creation is another problem area. It is envisaged that visible progress in these areas will emerge in the course of next year. Establishing a culture of learning is another great challenge. A restructuring of the educational system is underway, but progress is restricted by severe financial constraints.
Implementation of the RDP, the best strategic framework for socioeconomic development South Africa has ever had, will be a long process. Courage and sustainability are key issues. How to lead and manage expectations, without undermining hope, is a great challenge. The meaningful involvement of donors is another issue. Joint ventures between donors, the private sector, government agencies and communities are happening. Most of these, having been carefully negotiated and executed, are already making a significant difference.
But spectacular progress should not be expected. Development, reconstruction, and growth of the kind that South Africa needs, will take time. However, the lessons and achievements of the past two years have put South Africa in an excellent position to change the country's socio-economic environment.