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This article reviews the various attempts at national spatial development planning that have been introduced in South Africa over the past eighty years. It demonstrates that, despite the ostensible support for national planning during this period, such plans and proposals rarely had a direct impact on the conduct of government business. Using both the authors’ personal experiences with the most recent such ‘plan’ – the National Spatial Development Perspective – they seek to explain why such planning initiatives are so difficult to introduce and implement. Key in this regard, they argue, is that while most national planning initiatives are formulated in a control paradigm common to more local planning contexts, the plans have to function within a complex and tightly interwoven national, provincial and local system that is essentially incompatible with such a paradigm. The historical overview, they argue, suggests that such a national spatial planning intervention would require a far harder-edged form of governance leaning more in the direction of intervention and control and less so in the direction of the current softer forms of dialogue, facilitation and guidance premised by the 1996 Constitution.