It’s fair to say that politicians often get accused of planning only for the short term. But from their perspective, it’s understandable. The reality of the 24/7 media cycle, not to mention other priorities such as the electoral timetable, inevitably assume great importance. However, this focus on the day-to-day can sometimes be detrimental to longer-term objectives. Jeff Radebe, however, is an exception to this rule.
For South Africa’s minister in the presidency for planning, monitoring, evaluation and administration, two future years loom large. The first is 2030, by which time the country aims to have eliminated poverty and reduced inequality, according to its National Development Plan (NDP). And the second is 2063. This is the African Union and the UN’s shared deadline for realising the vision of “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena”. And playing a pivotal role in getting there, he believes, will be the twin priorities of better infrastructure and enhanced regional integration.
“The future of this continent matters,” he says. “By 2050, Africa will have the same population as China and India today combined, with rising consumer demand from a growing middle class. If we can harness this obvious potential then Africa will be unstoppable. But we need a greater sense of urgency – we cannot be left behind again.”
The man with the plan
Few – if anyone – is as familiar with life in the South African government’s corridors of power as Radebe. He is the longest-serving cabinet minister, having served as a minister since 1994 under Presidents Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, and now under the incumbent president, Jacob Zuma.
He is putting this experience to good use by occupying a role at the very heart of government. The Department of Planning, Monitoring & Evaluation was set up to “facilitate, influence and support effective planning, monitoring and evaluation of government programmes aimed at improving service delivery, outcomes and impact on society”. It does so by monitoring the progress towards the NDP’s myriad goals and targets, as performance of senior officials and ministers. And he also finds the time to chair the National Planning Commission.
One of his key priorities is ensuring that ministers – together with their counterparts in neighbouring countries – continue the push towards the creation of trade corridors in order to catalyse development and transform economic markets. Such corridors – the North-South Corridor is perhaps the most well known – are of particular importance for Africa’s landlocked countries in order to get their produce and imports to domestic and overseas markets as efficiently as possible. This means border cooperation, enhanced transport links, and short and efficient turnaround times in ports.
Radebe, though, admits to a sense of frustration that progress has not been swifter. “I get the sense that we have done too much talking – we now need some more action,” he says. “Doing so resonates very well with the notion of responsive and responsible leadership because it is about building the networks, it is about linkages and infrastructure for a better future.”
He goes on to say that the long-standing infrastructure financing gap of closed, but doing so will involve a major mobilisation of domestic resources. He pinpoints as a key priority the need to increase the “paltry” level of pension funds invested in Africa. “It needs sharpened focus from all of us,” he says. “And so we really need to accelerate the development of bankable projects to attract these investments.”
The power of integration
The establishment of corridors, together with enhanced transport infrastructure, will release trade opportunities that can kick-start and sustain economic growth across the continent. It is clear that there is room for improvement. “Africa must continue to trade with itself,” the minister points out. “About 30% of trade today is within the African continent itself, but for that to rise significantly we need good roads, we need rail, we need all relevant infrastructure. Smart corridors offer great and significant levers for unlocking all these opportunities.”
Business also has an important role to play by creating much-needed jobs across the continent – particularly important given the fast-rising number of young Africans coming into the jobs market in the coming years and decades. “We must also unleash the power of the private sector,” says Radebe. “We need to be in partnership with the private sector if we are to succeed in all the things we do. Accelerating infrastructure will help develop and determine all our countries’ successes, and we need to move with speed so we can expand trade and be able to cope with the growth of the African population, especially young people.”
Despite the challenges ahead, the minister remains positive about what can and will be achieved. Not for him any temptation towards negativity, instead he envisages the sunlit uplands of a continent united by strong infrastructure, trade and economic growth. “I remain very optimistic about Africa,” he concludes. “And building quality infrastructure is not an option – it is critical if we want to see success in our journey to transform this great continent into what we all want to see.”
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