President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ambitious programme of resuscitating economic growth and streamlining policy implementation in a challenging environment is gaining momentum.
In his address to a joint sitting of Parliament in October last year, the President announced that in order “to fast-track the delivery of economic reforms, Operation Vulindlela will be implemented as a joint initiative of the Presidency and National Treasury.”
‘Vulindlela’ means to ‘open the way’ in isiZulu and isiXhosa.
Government established Operation Vulindlela with a dedicated team from the Presidency and National Treasury.
The government-wide approach through which Ministers, departments and state-owned entities (SOEs) implement structural reforms is making inroads.
Its aim is to fast-track the implementation of high-impact reforms, addressing obstacles or delays to ensure execution of policy commitments.
Reporting directly to President Ramaphosa and the Ministry of Finance, the Vulindlela unit provides updates to Cabinet and the National Economic Recovery Council on a regular basis.
The unit facilitates technical support to enable the implementation of these reforms by reform implementers – departments and SOEs. OV also provides recommendations to the President and the Cabinet.
Its location in the Office of the Presidency also points to the importance of OV, notes Finance Deputy Minister David Masondo.
The OV team collects information, analyses progress, prepares progress reports and makes recommendations.
“Why do we do this? Many of you will know that the economy has not been growing in the last 10 years. In 2019 the economy grew by 0.2% against the target of 5% as entailed in the NDP [National Development Plan]. We all know that the economy declined by 7% in 2020, [however], we project a growth of 3.3% this year, but it will be coming from a very low base,” says Masondo.
South Africa’s poor economic performance has been documented in indicators like the unemployment rate.
“We know the consequences of unemployment [and] poverty. This leads to many other problems in society. Why [has] the economy not been growing? There are structural impediments arising out of how the economy is structured and how these constraints have constrained [the] potential of economic growth,” he says, adding that it’s important to overcome these constraints.
Early progress made by OV, some of which was noted by the President in his February 2021 State of the Nation Address, includes the raising of the licensing threshold for embedded generation as well as the phased switch-off of analogue signal. The Ministry of Communications and Digital Technologies, together with broadcasters, last month started with the phased switch-off of analogue television transmitters in the Free State.
Progress has also been noted in the revival of blue and green drop water quality assessments and the establishment of the National Water Resources Infrastructure Agency (NWRIA). There has also been inroads in the roll-out of the e-visa system as well as the publication of the critical skills list and comprehensive review of the framework for attracting skills.
The initiative also seeks to facilitate structural reforms to grow the economy and to reduce the cost of production. It mainly focuses on network industries which provide inputs for economic agents, including business.
They range from reliable and cost effective electricity to dependable communications infrastructure, efficient water supply as well as skills.
“Part of our task is to facilitate structural reforms that will enable us to produce more electricity, more energy, not just for business but also for households. If you go to a firm that produces industrial goods, when there’s a power outage, [this has] a huge implication for that firm to meet its production requirements.”
Masondo points out that network industries are dominated by SOEs who have enjoyed monopoly positions.
“There are certain things that we need to do to ensure that there is competition in some of these industries.”
The initiative has identified three main reasons for slow reforms – namely internal government capacity, policy ambiguity and differences in certain respects and political economic interests.
To these, Operation Vulindlela escalates and proposes solutions in the different industries.
The team is led by Dr Sean Philips, Head of Economic Policy at the National Treasury, Duncan Pieterse and Head of Project Management in the Private Office of the President, Rudi Dicks.
Dicks explains that as part of the process, President Ramaphosa requests reform implementers to provide reform implementation plans with milestones and timeframes.
“Where required, OV assists with development of cross-cutting reform implementation plans. Reform implementers provide regular updates of progress against reform implementation plans. OV analyses progress updates, obtains information from other sources, and engages with reform implementers. [It also] provides support or escalates [matters] where necessary,” he says.
The unit regularly presents progress reports (independent of reform implementers) with recommendations to Clusters, Cabinet Committees, National Economic Recovery Council and the President.
In each sector, OV continuously assesses the status quo with implementation of all prioritised reforms.
If implementation is progressing well under capable leadership and only involves a single department or entity, it is monitored and progress reports are made.
“If implementation of a reform is not progressing well, capacity is lacking amongst the reform implementers, or there is a lack of coordination, OV engages with implementers, seeks consensus on challenges and what needs to be done by whom.
“Where necessary it offers support to reform implementers. If this is unsuccessful, or if an issue is urgent, [we] escalate [the matter] to the President with recommendations,” says Dicks.
If a policy decision is required to unlock progress, resolve uncertainty or disagreement, the unit provides recommendations to the President for engagement with the relevant Minister.
“We are not implementing a new plan; we are not coming with new plans; we are implementing what already exists in government. We are just making sure that these reforms, programs, initiatives, are implemented,” says Masondo.
The initiative does not take away the roles and functions of line departments.
“All we are doing is to identify issues, ask questions about why we are not moving insofar as this reform and support where we possibly can and escalate to the President and Cabinet where we think there isn’t movement.”
Agreeing with the Deputy Minister’s comments, is President Ramaphosa’s economic advisor Trudi Makhaya.
She emphasises that President Ramaphosa holds the unit dear.
“This is not another plan and it does not rehash everything that is in the Medium Strategic Framework but focuses on the effective implementation of government’s priorities. It is deliberately not comprehensive. Everything that government has committed to has to be implemented,” she says.
Throughout many engagements and forums, Cabinet members have always expressed a desire to sharpen the execution capability of government and this supports them in doing so.
“We need a new tool that fast-tracks and accelerates service delivery reforms and this is that tool. It is focused on a very specific set of objectives.”
She says the approach was that of a delivery unit, a very “agile machinery that responds to very particular challenges.”
Makhaya says coordination is a very important theme the country has grappled with in past years, leading to failures, especially where multi-departments and agencies are involved in a particular reform.
“In that particular instance we are able to have a team that can see and operate above the level of reform implementers and can see across and see when there are contradictions and also ensure that there is strong coordination when that is required.
“This is designed to address key obstacles to the implementation of reform and I think we cover most of the key obstacles that have been recognised over time as the most important issues,” she said.
The unit is not adding another layer of complexity.
“The idea here is to provide that strong coordination, technical expertise and also ensure there’s progress and clear understanding of what the challenges are, bringing to bear empirical and a technical approach to it rather than having an assumption as to why certain things are not happening.
“That is the essence of OV,” she says.