IF THERE is one aspect of governance that the African National Congress (ANC) has got consistently right since 1994, it is macroeconomic planning and management. Happily, the 2012-13 budget announcement was no exception - Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan reached a number of significant milestones in Wednesday's speech, despite being restrained by arguably the most difficult global and domestic economic conditions of the democratic era.
We were given, for the first time, a reasonably clear glimpse of the economy and society that is the ultimate goal of the ANC's broad transformation agenda, as well as how the government intends getting us there. It had been left to Mr Gordhan to pull together the plethora of ANC discussion papers and development plans that have been released in recent years to form a coherent economic blueprint. To a large extent, he succeeded - with a number of important caveats.
Among the economic loose ends left dangling over the years were the envisaged social security and national health insurance (NHI) schemes, the Ministry of Economic Development's New Growth Path, the National Planning Commission's National Development Plan and the ambitious medium-term infrastructure expansion programme that dominated President Jacob Zuma's recent state of the nation address.
Each of these has been analysed ad nauseam in isolation, but there were always large gaps that led to real concern about how they would mesh in the broader scheme of things. Now, while a great number of questions remain unanswered, the basic economic principles that underpin the government's vision for the country are starting to come into focus.
The good news is that the picture being painted is at least credible, if not obviously achievable in its entirety. On the downside, much depends on a sustained improvement in South Africa's economic growth rate, which cannot be guaranteed, and a sea-change in the ability and political willingness of Mr Gordhan's Cabinet colleagues to put the new blueprint into practice. Still, such doubts are no reason to aim lower; they should rather encourage us as a society to clear the obstacles to progress with renewed vigour.
The single most encouraging point in Wednesday's speech was the statement that "redistribution is not a substitute for economic growth and job creation". This was supported by the section of the budget review covering fiscal policy, which is worth quoting in full: "Since 2009, government has been running a sizeable current deficit - meaning that the state has been borrowing to finance spending on recurrent costs such as compensation of employees, and goods and services. Borrowing to finance recurrent spending creates debt obligations that must be paid by future taxpayers who do not share in the benefits of this spending. In contrast, debt incurred to build infrastructure creates durable economic and social benefits. Over the next three years, government has prioritised closing the current balance . this gap should close in 2014-15, with the result that new borrowing is expected to finance investment rather than consumption."
Assuming the government sticks to this approach, whatever specific policies are eventually implemented will at least be sustainable. That applies even if restricting the real average increase in the public sector wage bill to 1% over the coming three years proves challenging in the face of union pressure, turning state hospitals and clinics into models of efficient healthcare as a precursor to the implementation of the NHI is stymied by the chronic health and management skills shortage, corruption and the wastage of state funds turns out to be more deeply entrenched than expected, and the scale of the future borrowing requirement makes it difficult to keep costs down.
Mr Gordhan has done his job. Now it is time for the rest of his Cabinet colleagues to start delivering. Based on past experience, they will struggle, which opens the door for the private sector to play a far more prominent role in the ANC's developmental state than the party is currently willing to acknowledge.