Quantified scenarios can be the tools of foresight South Africa needs

Dr Pali Lehohla is an executive committee member of the Indlulamithi SA Scenarios 2030 and the former statistician-general of South Africa. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

Dr Pali Lehohla is an executive committee member of the Indlulamithi SA Scenarios 2030 and the former statistician-general of South Africa. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

Published Mar 25, 2021


By Pali Lehohla

SCENARIOS-based planning is not new to South Africa. In 1994 and again in 2000, the country developed scenarios that set out possible outcomes for the future.

These were designed to inform Cabinet Makhotla of where we were heading as a nation, and to stimulate the dialogues needed to face pertinent challenges.

Some of these scenarios, such as Memories of the Future, with a Muvhango and Nkalakatha edition, predicted to the date what was boiling in the belly of the monster and what was going to happen in South Africa – demonstrating how important and influential scenarios can be as tools of foresight.

The only aspect absent was who the actors would be. However, private guesses possibly were also not far off.

After 2008, however, scenarios fell away. It was only in 2017, when the Indlulamithi SA Scenarios 2030 project was born, that scenarios were created again.

This time, as a team of economists, researchers and business leaders, we decided to resurrect scenarios with a different approach.

Indlulamithi has developed three scenarios for South Africa: Gwara Gwara (a floundering false dawn), iSbhujwa (an enclave bourgeois nation) and Nayi le Walk (a nation in step with itself). Each one seeks to answer the question of whether social cohesion is attainable by 2030.

And, filling a gap in previous scenarios, we have worked together with Applied Development Research Solutions (ADRS) to quantify each one of those.

This has been significant. Using the ADRS economic modelling techniques, we have anchored each scenario in numbers to support and strengthen their economic underpinning. In doing so, the scenarios aren’t just imaginings of the future, but strategic tools that can provide the insight and foresight needed to test ideas and make informed policy choices.

What does this quantification tell us? The latest ADRS report on Covid-19 and South Africa’s Economic Outlook, for instance, tells us that if we follow a business-as-usual policy approach, South Africa will take four years to return to its pre-Covid economic state – a state already undesirable by any measure.

But under a different scenario, one where we adopt a new six-pillar policy framework, the recovery period can be shorter.

And, by 2030, the size of the economy can almost double (from R3.15 trillion to R6.18trln), the unemployment rate can reduce by almost 70 percent (from 39 percent to 12 percent), the poverty rate by almost 50 percent (from 43 percent to 23 percent) and inequality by 22 percent (from 71 percent to 55 percent).

The modelling, in clear steps, shows that we can achieve the goals of the National Development Plan – and move towards the Nayi le Walk scenario in the next 10 years.

Nayi le Walk is the most desirable scenario. It provides a vision of South Africa where there is growing social cohesion, economic expansion and a renewed sense of constitutionalism. Quantification takes this socially desirable scenario and shows that, economically, it fits.

With a framework to understand our current reality – and to see a clear, measured pathway to an attainable future – these scenarios become more politically mobilising.

Even though the country is currently in the depths of Gwara Gwara, there is a way out. These quantified scenarios remind us that we still have viable options that are achievable.

The problem I see with many national plans today, such as the economic recovery plan, is that they are seldom organised in a systematic, foresighted way.

They lack a long-term view and a measurable road map. Their outcomes at the minimum can hardly pass the muster of the paper they are written on, they cannot at best be guaranteed or demonstrated through the virtual space of the eye of the needle.

South Africans often complain about the poor follow-through, or lack of implementation, of promising plans and policies.

The fault lines, however, are often in the design of the plans themselves. You cannot implement a bad plan, but a no plan is a no no.

In both instances there are no instruments of foresight that are needed to move them from the shelf to action.

It is here where quantified scenarios can play a significant role. We know that there are multiple views on the workings of a market economy and the role of policy.

Given the failure of past policies to overcome the challenges of low growth and high unemployment, poverty and inequality, we need to have a healthy and constructive debate on the way forward.

And, given the extent of our challenges, we cannot afford to ring-fence any policy area or tools we have at our disposal.

Quantified scenarios will not resolve everything. But they will be exhaustive in macroeconomic policy, microeconomic policy, social policies, and spatial principles for following economic laws of motions.

Since the tools are primarily anchored in design thinking, they are integrative, and can systematically modularise and deliver at scale.

Systematically using them, we can take proposals through the eye of the needle test, and align them to create synergy, now contradiction, with other policies and work together in the direction of development through growth.

Dr Pali Lehohla is an executive committee member of the Indlulamithi SA Scenarios 2030 and the former statistician-general of South Africa.

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites


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