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Cohen takes on new marathon at the NPC



It’s not every day that you get a phone call from the office of the minister in the presidency informing you that you have been appointed as a member of the third National Planning Commission (NPC).

It’s also not every day that this call is followed soon after by a formal, signed letter from President Cyril Ramaphosa congratulating you.

This is how December played out for business leader Tanya Cohen. She is now one of 28 highly placed commissioners, external experts tasked with prioritising economic and social recovery in the wake of the pandemic.

It’s a hefty task and pretty vital work, not something to take lightly, agrees the mother of two, who resigned as head of the Business Unity South Africa (Busa) in 2019. This follows what was a highly challenging, all-consuming, complex, and diverse role at Busa, which led to Cohen taking early departure ahead of pursuing new opportunities.

When she received the call in early December, it came up as an unknown number so at first she declined to answer. “Then I saw the same number come up again, and I thought I’d better answer it this time,” she said with some amusement.

It’s a good thing she did.

“This is an exciting opportunity. It’s a privilege to be able to participate in a group of people with a wealth of expertise and experience in diverse fields from urban planning to food security,” she said.

Being action-driven, Cohen was especially heartened by the group’s induction in mid-December, which, she says, showed commitment towards implementation and execution.

“It was exciting to meet fellow commissioners, some of whom I have worked with in the past and, of course, a number of others whom I look forward to engaging with, all of whom share a commitment to South Africa’s prosperity and future,” she said.

The NPC is a government agency established in 2010 responsible for strategic planning. It’s an independent advisory body and think tank.

This commission’s mandate is to develop strategy for a post COVID-19 economy and society to deal with the country’s triple challenge of poverty, unemployment, and inequality by 2030.

“The challenges are complex and there are many, but there’s hope. We’re moving beyond a think tank into a ‘do-tank’,” said Cohen, who is hoping to prioritise a few key areas like youth unemployment, for example.

Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele said the NPC was mandated also to support the strong leadership required to mobilise society to promote the acceleration of the National Development Plan (NDP) towards 2030.

The commissioners will assist in forging a conversation among key stakeholders, which it is hoped will lead to effective and impactful social compacts on a number of key issues. Issues such as food and water security, energy, education, the fourth industrial revolution, transport, and climate change to name a few, will be rigorously addressed.

All very ambitious, but Cohen believes the commissioners show real commitment. They will serve on a part-time basis for five years.

“I want to see the country succeed. This is what motivates me,” she said. “It’s a deep feeling of wanting to give back. I come across a lot of like-minded people. When you get involved in creating something better, it helps considerably.”

So, how did Cohen get involved in the NPC?

After her surprise resignation from Busa, Cohen took a short break before being approached by former politician and businessman Roelf Meyer, the director of the In Transformation Initiative. He brought her on board as a co-ordinator for the Public Private Growth Initiative (PPGI).

The PPGI is spearheaded by Meyer and Dr Johan van Zyl to promote sector-based growth strategies and projects by unlocking constraints and opportunities for economic growth and investment together with government, said Cohen.

Insiders say Cohen brings a clear sense of direction and delivery by being able to untangle myriad complexities – something desperately needed to kickstart the engine of the economy.

This role, and her time at Busa, position her as a sought after public-private impact advisor who comes with a healthy dose of humility.

So, when nominations for the NPC were called for early last year, Meyer put her name forward, believing her to be well placed.

In positioning Busa as the country’s apex business organisation and a critical partner to government at the National Economic Development and Labour Council, Cohen dealt with all sorts of sectors, and the work involved a lot of engagement with government, trade unions, business, and the community.

Also, as the former chairperson of the governing body of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration and having held the role of employee-relations executive at Woolworths, Cohen is looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead.

Clearly, she’s up for any challenge. Soon after leaving Busa, she took up running, and it wasn’t long afterwards that she started to train for her first marathon, which she completed in February 2020.

“I’m hooked, it’s like meditation,” she said.

With four marathons under her belt, she has set her sights on the Comrades Marathon later this year having “sneaked a Comrades qualifying time” insisting that she’s “hopelessly slow”.

So, where does her drive come from?

“My late mom always pushed my siblings and me to do more and do better,” she said. The long distance running comes from her late father, John, who completed 22 Comrades, winning 13 silver and nine bronze medals.

Though South Africa is a long way off the ambitious goals set by the NDP for a sustainable life for all with full employment, greater equality, and the elimination of poverty by 2030, it’s good to know that people like Cohen have the country’s best interests at heart. No doubt, her work for the NPC will be a marathon of an altogether different kind.

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