National Planning Commissioner Cyril Ramaphosa, right, with the Minister in the Presidency and chairman of the commission,Trevor Manuel.

When I was involved in the process of drawing up South Africa’s first democratic constitution, I remember being amazed at the number of letters we received, the many scraps of paper handed to us at meetings all over the country, even submissions on cigarette boxes. All these contained thoughts, ideas and dreams about what South Africans wanted to see in the future. That was in 1995 and 1996.

In May last year President Jacob Zuma appointed 26 of us to the National Planning Commission.

With our chairman, Planning Minister Trevor Manuel, we have been mandated to take an independent and critical view of our reality and, based on the best evidence available, to develop a vision for South Africa in 2030.

A vision should set out where we would like to see the country in 20 years.

We are also tasked with producing a draft national development plan. This plan should map out the path to achieving the objectives outlined in the vision. Now in 2011, we have a number of options available as we engage with South Africans and elicit their views.

Following the release of the diagnostic document on June 9, the National Planning Commission had incredibly rich and productive engagements with South Africans through provincial visits, we convened “fireside” chats with leaders in key sectors, had Facebook and Twitter conversations, and faxes and e-mails have flooded in.

One of the innovative methods the commission decided to test was the “NPC Jam”.

For 72 hours, between September 28 and October 1, the NPC Commissioners engaged South Africans through an online, collaborative brainstorming event – developed by IBM – called the Jam.

The main aim of this innovative platform was to bring together South Africans, primarily the youth, to discuss ideas on important social, economic and business challenges as elements to the plan.

I was really happy to be participating in this historic process of interacting with people who are interested in the future of our country.

Initially, I joined the NPC chairman and IBM staff at the IBM offices and later jammed remotely.

Under the economy forum, I chaired the discussion on entrepreneurship and the development of small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs), which is an issue close to my heart.

South Africa faces numerous socio-economic challenges in its new democracy, one of the main ones being that of growing unemployment, which is especially evident among the country’s youth.

No country has been able to reduce poverty or raise living standards without growing its economy. But how do we ensure that economic growth is inclusive and creates jobs?

It is a widely accepted phenomenon that SMMEs provide the majority of new jobs worldwide and are vital to the continuing growth and success of any economy.

In South Africa, SMME development is of critical importance as it helps to create jobs. Despite this, research shows that South Africa has a very low level of entrepreneurial activity compared with other developing countries.

This begs the question of what it is that is standing in the way of South Africa increasing its entrepreneurial activity.

Experts confirm the main factors inhibiting SMME growth and entrepreneurial activity to be:

l Education and training: South Africa has a low overall quality of primary and secondary education. Research has shown a link between education and entrepreneurial activity. Young people, in particular, lack the skills, experience and expertise to start and sustain a small business.

l Government policies and regulations: excessive bureaucracy and cumbersome application processes, offices that are open only on weekdays, and protracted, inefficient decision-making have compounded the issue. The cost of compliance is very high and this places an unnecessary burden on small businesses.

l Access to finance: lack of access to financial support as well as the lack of financial management and other business skills are some of the major problems facing entrepreneurs in South Africa.

l Cultural challenges: fear of failure is a major barrier inhibiting entrepreneurial behaviour. Society has also created an environment where it is believed that is better to get a job to be secure rather than to take the risk of starting a business.

South Africans showed interest in this forum and made new, concrete and feasible suggestions.

Daniel Gerlag suggested that we have entrepreneurship as part of our education curriculum. If our education system were to include teaching young people the basic principles of business many people would find it a lot easier to navigate around stormy waters when they wish to form a business.

Another brilliant idea, shared by Shadrack Kubyane, was the spreading of practical knowledge on SMMEs through business people hosting lectures in schools.

Grant Burger suggested the establishment of a business incubation facility, where new entrepreneurs get the required assistance.

The Department of Trade and Industry has been thinking about how an incubation service can be started. There are a number of NGOs with similar initiatives on a smaller scale. If the government could provide this incubation facility, it would have more scale and would be able to reach more people.

South Africans’ response was overwhelming: 9 932 users registered to participate in the NPC Jam and there were 11 764 logins.

A total of 8 974 posts were made during the Jam: education and training (1 616), the economy (1 469) and jobs (1 105) received the majority of posts. All district municipalities in South Africa took part, with the youth notably making 38 percent of the posts.

The NPC Jam once again showed not only the innovation of South Africans, but underlined the fundamental commitment of our people to finding solutions to the challenges we face. In this experience lies the hope and promise for South Africa.

Just as they did during the combining of our collective wisdom in the process of drawing up our constitution in 1996, so are South Africans beginning to map a path towards a desired future in 2030.

l Cyril Ramaphosa is the deputy chairman of the National Planning Commission