Opinionista Thembinkosi Gcoyi 19 August 2015

Visas: SA’s government and business are having a conversation of the deaf

The recent brouhaha over the not-so-new immigration regulations and their effect on South African tourism has once more confirmed what a few observers have been saying for a while: the government and business are engaged in a conversation of the deaf. It would appear the two sides are fast proving incapable of having a meaningful conversation without each adopting a laager mentality.

On the one side, you have an under-resourced government sector that is deeply wedded to ideology and deeply mistrustful of the business sector. On the other, you have a business sector that takes the default position that the government is incompetent and intent on destroying value-creating activities in the name of transformation.

Once again, South Africa finds itself in the midst of another inter-ministerial committee which must evaluate the effect of the not-so-new visa regulations. Some people would argue that this is a misguided exercise in perception management; the government is simply trying to find the least damaging way of backtracking from what I am sure are known to be good intentions gone bad.

The government is well within its rights to enact legislation that seeks to secure ports of entry and put an end to child trafficking. At the same time, the business community, not just the tourism sector, is fully justified in raising its objections to the destruction of business as a result of these regulations, which was foreseen even before they took effect on June 1 2015. The question is: Why did the government forge ahead with the implementation of the regulations in the face of the easily predictable negative effects?

Department of Home Affairs spokesman Mayihlome Tshwete has had a difficult time convincing a sceptical public and stakeholders about the need for these regulations at a time when the South African economy needs more foreigners visiting our shores and not less. This has been made worse by persistent rumours of a Cabinet split over the desirability of these rules, with a supposedly dissenting voice coming from within the economic cluster departments whose work is made more difficult by a security cluster department that seems to have taken a dogmatic approach to its mandate.

The Department of Home Affairs has been dogmatic as it had received enough forewarning about the effect of these regulations, not only from business, but also from within the government itself. Yet, the minister, a rising star whose diligence is unquestionable, seems to have taken what was bequeathed by Naledi Pandor as religion. Under his watch, the department has taken an inflexible approach to a matter that has real life socio-economic implications and simply reduced it to a question of security. This is despite credible arguments that child trafficking through border posts is a negligible part of the broader trend.

In understanding the department’s dogged approach to the implementation of these regulations, it may be worthwhile to move beyond their immediacy and think about this more as a symptom of faltering stakeholder management, which is creating a widening gulf between critical stakeholders in society. The pending jobs carnage in the mining sector and the never-ending brawl over e-tolls are further examples of this gulf. In all three cases, there has been a discernible trend of the government taking a defensive position and defending its power to govern. The result has been a pronounced unwillingness to engage proactively with stakeholders and take their concerns on board. In some instances, this has come across as an emaciated state that wields power and does not rely on the power of persuasion to gain legitimacy for its edicts.

At the same time, it reveals the extent to which the legislative wing of the state has undermined its own mandate to shape conversation as the legitimately constituted representative of participatory governance. Shamefully, it has become the role of the judiciary to always keep both wings in check; a role which none of us should celebrate since it speaks to the failure of our democracy.  Though the judiciary is mandated by the Constitution to adjudicate on the matters that land on its table, none of us can rejoice at the fact that we increasingly have to call upon it to instil common sense. We would all like to believe that our elected government and representatives are not arbitrary in their decision making and that they engage in bona fide consultative processes.

Equally, we should all lament the increasing regularity with which nongovernmental stakeholders seem to relish the chance to ‘stick it’ to the government whenever there is disagreement. Of course, we should celebrate the fact that influential business people seem to embrace the opportunity afforded by public platforms to speak their minds on the state of our affairs as a country. However, it bears mentioning that this should never be done for politics, as this can quickly descend into a conversation of the deaf. One can almost guarantee a visceral response from the government to any criticism that comes from a high-profile white CEO. The inevitable result is that positions become entrenched and honest conversation suffers.

What is to be done? For starters, it may help for both business and the government to start by admitting that all is not well in the way relations have been managed over the last few years.

For the government, this means accepting that all South Africans have a vested interest in the success of this country. It means accepting that business has, as its primary objective, to satisfy shareholder needs. This means value creation, otherwise known as making money. There can be no reason whatsoever for engaging in business if no money is made from the exercise. The assumption that business must be patriotic to its disadvantage is misguided in the extreme and reflects a poor grasp of business realities in a competitive and still globalising world. This requires an honest conversation and less pontification about the wrongs of business. Hopefully, it will translate to less inter- ministerial task teams and more sustained engagement. No Convention for a Democratic South Africa please.

For business, it means accepting that the government is made up of people who sometimes make mistakes. It means accepting that our history of exclusion instils in those in power a certain way of viewing the world which may not necessarily agree with the views of those whose function is not societal transformation per se. It means accepting that the government has a mandate to balance conflicting interests at a time of diminishing resources and insufficient capacity to manage all the complex dynamics that come with steering a country as complex and contradictory as ours. Fundamentally, it requires that business invest resources in understanding this society for all its shortcomings and actually become a real partner for all of society in driving the transformation we all need to achieve our potential as a country and a people. DM

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