More to govt's spat with Reuel Khoza

2012-04-10 00:00

LAST week a storm erupted after Nedbank chairperson Reuel Khoza criticised the dearth of political leadership in South Africa. After several days of silence, the ANC heavily criticised him, saying he had no moral ground for seeing inadequate political leadership, given his failure to find a buyer for Nedbank as instructed.

So, instead of a dialogue over the many issues that this country’s business and political leaders need to have about how a better future can be achieved, the conversation quickly became something akin to a dialogue of the deaf. That is one where each side defends its own entrenched positions rather than listening to the concerns of the other.

But this is an old problem. There have been very limited conversations between the government and business leaders outside the technical negotiation platform called the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac). And while Nedlac is crucial for developing the basis of co-operation over major policy-implementation questions facing our economy, it is of limited value in providing space for deeper forms of social compact between business, government and labour. This is because Nedlac allows the entrenchment of sectional interests of each social partner. The Nedlac platform is, therefore, unable to address major political questions such as the desired form and character of the state and society, the broad economic framework to help bring about that, the meaning of corporate citizenship beyond corporate social responsibility, the meaning of an enabling environment and so forth.

The business working groups that Thabo Mbeki hosted during his terms helped provide space for small and big business to talk to the government. But talking to the government should not be the nature of the conversation to be had. It should be about open-minded dialogue rather than merely lobbying government for favours. The formation of Business Unity South Africa (Busa) was meant to help bridge the apartheid divide that resulted in white-owned business interfacing with the government separately from black business. But this, too, has been of limited influence in bringing about an open conversation on South Africa’s society and business.

We have seen ever bigger business delegations accompanying President Jacob Zuma on international trips. Economic diplomacy where it means the idea of the government working to promote South African business abroad has become a key feature of our foreign policy. The Busa-government relationship has grown stronger. Key business leaders serve in the country’s National Planning Commission. There has been a meshing of political and business elite, with some business leaders serving in government and politicians doubling up as businesspeople.

Yet relations between the political elite and organised business are far from constituting the social contract the country deserves. In fact, the deep mutual mistrust that we have seen for decades continues. The coincidence between race and class, resulting in the likelihood that most of organised business is white-owned and the dominant political forces are mainly black-led has littered the road with many potholes.

These potholes include the tendency for both sides to talk past each other. Another is deep-seated fear in business that the dominant political class is anti-capitalist and pro-labour in outlook, while politicians suspect South African business of being unpatriotic in nature. There is also the division of both the political class and the business class along racial lines. Business remains very cautious in its pursuit of influence over the direction that this country takes.

The acrimony over Khoza’s statements is a metaphor for the serious inadequacy of conversations between business and the political class. Khoza raised pertinent questions about the type and kind of political leadership needed to achieve sustainable economic development, while Gwede Mantashe of the ANC also raised important questions about business leadership. This is a good basis for fundamental dialogue between the two sides, if they would learn to look beyond the rhetoric and anger.

This is why the United Democratic Movement and others have made incessant calls for an economic summit or Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa), so that the social partners begin fundamental dialogue instead of secret lobbying, technical brinksmanship at Nedlac or an occasional tit-for-tat. This idea must be taken seriously as economic success for this country will require such dialogue.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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