The Big Read: BUSA CEO Tanya Cohen on changing tack in business after a 'decade of destruction'

CEO of Business Unity South Africa Tanya Cohen is optimistic the country will exit the recession in 2019, but says there must be recognition that there has been a decade of destruction and extraordinary steps have to be taken by government and trade-offs made by all social partners.

"Has our work culture really shifted? We have become so used to operating in a certain way," she said in an interview with Fin24 in Sandton last week.

BUSA is considered the apex institution representing organised business, with a range of members: professional, sectoral, chambers and South Africa’s largest corporates. In the last two years of the Jacob Zuma administration, the organisation increasingly called for accountability and ethical leadership in government.

The organisation has worked together with labour, government and community on the National Minimum Wage and amendments to labour laws at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) and, most recently, partnered closely with President Cyril Ramaphosa on the Jobs Summit and Investment Conference.

Cohen, having been appointed as BUSA CEO in December 2016, has been at the helm during this turbulent period, where established business was labelled White Monopoly Capital, and there were allegations of an anti-transformation agenda. 

Avoided speaking about diversity

Cohen, who holds a Master’s degree in law from Wits University, admits that prior to the development of the BUSA transformation strategy, members had "almost avoided speaking about it [diversity]."

"I don’t think many work places can deal well with diversity," says Cohen, adding that this sometimes falls by the wayside while "getting the job done". 

The BUSA document, titled 'A Business Approach to Black Economic Transformation for Inclusive Growth' was released in June 2017, and advocates for a transformation culture within businesses, industry-led education and skills development, employment promotion, especially of youth and the creation of black-owned businesses through the value chain.

Cohen says the transformation strategy now acts as BUSA’s "compass" and informed its approach to the Jobs Summit which, in October, pledged to create 275 000 jobs annually, in addition to the approximately 300 000 positions the economy creates every year.

While Ramaphosa declared the "investment strike" over at the Investment Summit in late October, Cohen is pragmatic, saying organised business didn’t ever think they were sitting on piles of cash during the recent politically uncertain period when the economic conditions deteriorated and which saw business and consumer confidence crash.

"The reality is that businesses don’t invest if the climate isn’t right…you don’t plant crops in unfertile soil," says Cohen, who grew up on a smallholding in Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal.

She says, however, that there is a sense of optimism about recent policy changes and the willingness to listen to business concerns under the Ramaphosa administration, adding that a lot more needs to be tackled to change the economic fortunes of the country.

Improve foundations of economy

Her top three things to improve the economy would be all "foundational": massively improving education and skills, fixing state-owned companies (SOC’s) and ensuring municipalities function smoothly and provide services.

She was one of the people negotiating hard behind the scenes at Nedlac so the leaders could sign the already agreed-upon documents at the Jobs Summit, for the cameras. As a former Chairperson of the governing body of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) and as previous employee relations executive at Woolworths, she speaks with passion about dispute resolution and having different interests in a room while finding a common solution.

Cohen describes how she was part of the Woolworths team in the late 1990s, who led a project that converted thousands of employees into flexible, secure employment.

While Cohen said she really enjoying her work consulting for the Retail Association and to a range of clients, a colleague pushed her to take up the technical lead for business at Nedlac negotiations arising out of the 2014 Ekurhuleni Declaration.

The institution which has been credited for gaining consensus on a National Minimum Wage and labour stability has been criticised by the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) for failing to be inclusive.

Cohen admits that Nedlac, while being a "really significant institution", needs to improve its institutional capacity and adapt to the changing world of work, while maintaining stability, so that delegations remain constant and agreements are kept in place.

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