Something is surely wrong when many influential people endorse or reject a document none of them have read. The document is South Africa's National Development Plan, which was adopted by Parliament five years ago and is the product of a National Planning Commission which was led by former finance minister Trevor Manuel and current deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa.
The National Development Plan has become almost an article of faith for business leaders and business friendly commentators. In what has become a knee jerk reaction, they routinely demand that the government "implement it". In an equally knee jerk reaction, unionists, activists and commentators on the left denounce the plan as a programme to appease business by sacrificing workers and the poor to the market.
But the plan's praise singers in the market place and its opponents in unions and citizens' organisations have something important in common: neither has ever read the document which runs to almost 500 pages. If they had, they would know that the label they pin on it does not fit. The plan is not a clear step-by-step programme for change. It is a broad, sometimes internally contradictory, document which is a basis for negotiation far more than a road map.
Those who see the National Development Plan as a coherent document seem to have forgotten the political battle which was triggered when it was initiated by President Thabo Mbeki's administration shortly before Mbeki was removed from office.
The ANC's alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, blamed Mbeki and Manuel for appeasing business. As Cosatu noted in a document released in late 2009, they believed that Manuel would use the National Planning Commission to impose a business friendly approach on government and the alliance.
They suspected, probably correctly, that the Mbeki government had wanted the commission to become the centre of government planning. After Mbeki was replaced by Jacob Zuma, they mobilised successfully against this and the result was an agreement that the commission would simply provide support to government and that the NDP would be not a detailed plan but a broad vision for where the country would want to be in 2030. So the National Development Plan is not a firm plan because it was never meant to be one.
A mixed bag
Those who see the plan as a route map tend also to forget that the men and women sitting on the commission represented a range of interests and that it was, therefore, a compromise between them. This partly explains why it offers something to everyone - a point which is clear to anyone who takes the trouble to read it.
One who did is former South African Communist Party deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin. In a reply to left-wing unions who saw the plan as the work of the devil, Cronin argued that it was impossible to endorse or reject the entire document because both the opponents and friends of the market could find support for their positions in it.
Cronin rejected the chapter on the economy, which he saw as too friendly to markets, but endorsed the chapter which saw a key role for the state in changing the shape of the cities and sections which suggested a strong government role in development. If Cronin worked for the Chamber of Business, he would no doubt have endorsed the economic chapter and rejected the passages on the state's role. The key point in his analysis, however, was that, whichever side of the economic debate you were on, you would find passages in the plan to endorse and others to oppose.
The point was illustrated some years ago when organised agriculture denounced a government proposal for regional land redistribution committees. This, it turned out, came not from the left of the union movement or the friends of state capture but from the 'business friendly' National Development Plan.
Why do both sides endorse or reject the National Development Plan without bothering to read it? The answer may well lie in the personalised nature of South African politics.
Business and its supporters trust Manuel and Ramaphosa and so they assume that they must have produced a strongly market friendly document. The left distrust them and so they assume the same thing. This might be amusing if it did not prompt a sterile debate which does nothing to focus minds on what needs to change if the economy is to grow and include many more people.
Useful bits and pieces
Even if the National Development Plan was a clear map, it contains so many ideas for change that not even the most efficient government in the world could implement it in less than a decade or two. Given this, when parliament - and the government - promised to implement the plan they could not possibly have been committing to implementing all of it. If they were serious about implementing its economic and social proposals, they would have needed to signal clearly which ones they favoured. And, since this would inevitably have affected the interests of key economic interest groups, they would have needed to negotiate the changes with them.
The government has not done this and so it seems likely that what it does mean is that it will seek to implement those sections of the plan which affect it directly.
The plan might offer something to everyone on social and economic issues but it does also have a clear way to improve how government functions. By endorsing the document, the government was surely agreeing to take the steps the plan recommended when it discussed how to build a "capable state".So it makes sense to hold the government to account for the degree to which it has - or has not - implemented the plan's recommendations on fixing itself.
For the rest, it would make more sense to insist that the government signal clearly which other sections of the document it plans to implement than to insist that it implement (or reject) all of it.
This offers a key to the role the National Development Plan could play in moving South Africa forward. Business, labour and other interest groups are far more likely to find the plan useful if they identify those sections they would like to see implemented and then pressed the government to act on them, using the fact that they appear in the document as a lever.
They will obviously face opposition from those with differing interests but that is how democracy works. The National Development Plan would then be a catalyst for debate and negotiation on details, not a take it or leave it recipe.
Five years on, the National Development Plan could help focus attention on economic change. But only if both sides stop seeing it as a fetish rather than a way of starting a conversation.
Steven Friedman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.