Opinionista Trudi Makhaya 10 March 2014

Letter to Tshwane

In a society such as ours - complex, diverse and highly unequal - it is unfortunate that rigorous political economy analyses do not inform all the plans and policies that as a society we are so good at generating. Policy proposals will not always be met with consensus, but dissent should be anticipated and managed appropriately.

It’s like an absurdist play.

Scene 1. Organised Business writes a letter to Tshwane. Then it waits for a response. And waits. Someone drives down the M1 towards the Eeufees off-ramp to find out what happened. No one on the other side can find the letter. Scene 2. Another letter is sent to Tshwane. Waiting. Letter can’t be found. Follow up meetings. After a long search, the letter is found, filed under the folder: Correspondence. Scene 3. A follow-up letter is sent to Tshwane. Enter a government minister. She is livid, referencing Satan and genocide. Then another letter is sent. Silence. Scene 4. Enter chorus of business associations singing We shall go an investment strike. Curtain falls.

Two key events on the political calendar, the State of the Nation address and the presentation of the national budget, are behind us. The response to these crucial policy statements of government by commentators and the public has to be seen in the context of an election year that coincides with twenty-year anniversary celebrations. The government sought to present the achievements of the post-Apartheid era. And this being a young, boisterous democracy, the response has been skeptical and critical. We are, at our best, an ambitious and impatient people. Though the debate may seem unusually spirited this year, some regular themes emerge, including the constant plea by private sector-aligned analysts for better dialogue and co-ordination between the public and private sector. It seems that the private sector’s letter to Tshwane rarely solicits the desired response.

Political economy is becoming fashionable again. I think. I hope. The idea that economic and development challenges can be resolved in sterile technocracies and unleashed into the world for implementation has always been naive. Nonetheless, the analysis of the distribution of power and interests in society, and related to that, how discourse is shaped and decisions are legitimised, has always fallen by the wayside when public sector and business leaders take decisions. The National Development Plan, on which so many sectors of society have pinned their hopes, has had to come face-to-face with the reality of the cleavages in our society. The plan gets regular shout-outs from the president, the cabinet and many senior political leaders across the political spectrum. Yet certain labour formations have made it clear that they are not on board. And what the unemployed think about the plan is anyone’s guess.

In a society such as ours – complex, diverse and highly unequal – it is unfortunate that rigorous political economy analyses do not inform all the plans and policies that as a society we are so good at generating. I am not suggesting that policy proposals will always be met with consensus, but at the very least, dissent should be anticipated and managed appropriately.

When it comes to organised business, the vexed issue of business-state relations is also not just about how responsive government is to the views of this sector. Government is often painted as dogmatic, indifferent or even hostile to business. Yet the competence of business in crafting and presenting its contributions to policy is questionable. Working as a senior civil servant, I have been confronted with condescending diatribes about the importance of business to society, even from raging monopolists and cartelists who are hostile to the free market, without much substance being brought to bear on the technical issues on the table.

I wonder how many South African businesses have the capability to have their viewpoints heard and considered in crucial policy debates that affect their viability without incurring significant legal bills or questionable expenditure. I ask this question because it seems as if policy advocacy, driven by fact and not ideology; driven by a genuine need to engage and not short term opportunism, remains a rare endeavour. Not so long ago the Minister of Health reacted with strong words to what came across as a cynical and opaque ploy to influence policy in a manner that would hijack public debate to preserve narrow interests.

Current popular modes of policy advocacy by the private sector leave a lot to be desired. One does not need to say much about those who seek to influence policy outcomes through illicit payments to and inappropriate relationships with public officials. This is clearly unacceptable behaviour for any responsible corporate citizen.

Then you find those businesses that seek to participate in policy discourse through litigious means, often with the consequence, intended or unintended, of policy paralysis. This mode of advocacy is usually reactive, long after a proposal has made its way through various processes, including public consultations. Legal insight is useful, especially with regards to the drafting of new legislation or amendments to existing laws. But it can often lend an adversarial tone to what should be an empirical exercise to convey the costs and benefits of a particular course of action.

The problem starts with the way corporates approach their government liaison tasks. This is not a uniquely South African problem. As a recent paper by management consultancy McKinsey argues, the way the government affairs office is organised and staffed in many businesses is not optimal. It does not allow that function to play its fundamental role of anticipating policy developments that affect the business models that companies intend to pursue and to engage meaningfully and constructively with public officials. In the atmosphere of increasing hostility towards government that has emerged, the average executive has become ignorant, wilfully, of the policy-making process and even national priorities. This is not in shareholders’ interests, who invest money in companies with the expectation that managers are managing all that pertains to the business, including its policy, legislative and regulatory environment. It’s time to rethink how messages to Tshwane are researched, developed and communicated. DM

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