Also read: Gavin Hartford’s take on the state of our nation.
If you are feeling pregnant with hope or expectation of a new dawn rising from Nedlac, don’t hold your breath. Don’t even bother to pray. It won’t help. There will be nothing that comes from the insiders’ talk shop that fundamentally alters our downward trajectory. Not a word. It will be more of the same: lots of fanfare to simply announce more government expenditure and debt, and some new privatisation and competition perhaps. None of the core levers of our social dislocation, our gross inequality and race-class-insider-outsider division, which drive our dissonance and social discord, will be addressed. There will be no fundamental, primary trade-offs to grow the proverbial cake and share it more equally.
This is not surprising. Nedlac itself, and indeed the stakeholders who breathe life into it, is no longer fit for purpose. It represents yesterday’s leaders, locked into a prism of yesterday’s can-do and can’t-do ideas, bonded together by an unrepresentative Nedlac straitjacket, in a dance of stakeholder engagement and blame games.
The truth is that we are a nation deeply divided. A nation in economic and social freefall into depths of poverty and social dislocation. A nation of two worlds in one, personified into polarised interest sets, diplomatically trying to find a Nedlac midpoint. “Us” and “them” permeates our very thought process, our culture and dialogue. Our apartheid-crafted ancestral and language and race and class faultlines run deep and fashion our very essence. None of that has changed fundamentally since the dawn of democracy. We never had the hard conversation of who we are and what we want to be as people, beyond some words on a constitutional script written by lawyers for some political leaders more than two decades ago.
We never had our economic Codesa to tear down our apartheid economic and social walls. They are still firmly in place, these impregnable walls. And these walls cut across our ownership of our land and businesses, our trading spaces and markets, our living and learning and recreational spaces, our homes and hospitals and places of prayer. In a word: our very socio and economic landscape of opportunity and lifestyles too. And worse still: these walls cut deep into our everyday thought process, a thought process scarred by a socially dislocated set of diverse values and ethical standards. It’s always been like that. It has become worse, notwithstanding the politics of the democratic transition, notwithstanding the promise of the rainbow nation. We are more divided, more unequal, more impoverished than ever before, despite everything.
It is entirely because of the depth of these apartheid-fuelled economic and social faultlines that we codified our conflicts and institutionalised our engagement in democratic South Africa. It’s no accident that one of the very first acts enacted by the democratic Parliament was the Nedlac Act 35 of 1994. It’s that close to our hearts: back then we took pride in being the miracle nation, the “negotiations capital of the world”. And we set up our Nedlac as the premier social dialogue institution that today, 26 years after the dawn of our democracy, is held up as the citadel of social compacting in the public interest, with the Cabinet as final arbitrator.
But it never did what it was set up to do: it never tore down the exclusionary walls to genuinely create a new and inclusive us. It completely failed us in that regard. It’s no exaggeration to say that, viewed with the spectacles of the impoverished outsiders, Nedlac is now the ultimate, well-heeled, elite insiders’ club. A collective of leaders far removed from the pits of degradation and poverty that swamp our country. So, it begs the question: Is Nedlac still fit for purpose?
Dare I say it: Nedlac does not represent the economic or social interests of our nation. Not even close. It’s a forum of big business and big government and big, largely public sector, labour. It’s the Diners Club card for what’s left of the employed. It excludes countless mass formations from faith-based organisations, significant private sector unions and a new union federation, NGOs, burial societies, stokvels, taxi associations, informal street traders and shebeen owners, all micro and medium-sized businesses, rural cooperatives and rural grass-roots associations, to name but a few. This representativity failure means that today it only talks to labour market policies for the already employed, to investment policy for the already invested, to industrial policy for the already established and industrialised, to fiscal policy for the already loaned and banked.
And it does this all, pretending to be talking on behalf of the nation, promising at best a trickle-down partial relief to the restless sea of outsiders.
But it is not just in its representivity or its policy agenda that it fails to speak from the voice of the voiceless people. It’s way worse than that. Because the Nedlac politics of consensus-seeking social dialogue for social compacting is at best a sham. It’s exclusionary by its very premise, its very nature. The so-called difficult negotiations are a ruse to disguise an inner consensus between the cosy insider club. A consensus that says that in the land of the insider club one unspoken rule trumps all others: save ourselves.
That means everything we do must protect our own narrow stakeholder interest, protect all our existing rights and all our holy cow interests that we hold dear to our hearts. So we can talk about everything provided we don’t tamper with our wages and our profits and investments, while bemoaning our nation’s unemployment and inequality and the like. In the insiders’ club there must be no losers, only winners for all those who own finance or assets or jobs. In other words, do anything except change something of what we already have got. And what we’ve already got is exactly the dead end that has brought us to the precipice of our nation’s implosion.
Nedlac won’t fundamentally attack the race and class and ownership and income and access walls that divide us and exclude the bulk of us. It will offer a Band Aid strip to our gaping wound.
Watch this space. You will see that Nedlac politics boil down to nothing more than the leaders’ club approving what government must do in any event: like spend on infrastructure, or include IPPs on the grid, or auction broadband spectrum, or create a semblance of competition, privatisation and the like. Add some timelines and action plans to the mix. Announce some great new success, a new beginning, even a new social compact. Call it a name: something like “Economic Recovery Plan for Job Creation”. Something that will appeal to all and hopefully assuage the discomfort of the nation. Which is not to say that some of this might indeed trickle down to some of us hungry, offline outsiders. But it is to say definitively that it won’t reverse the downward spiral.
Nedlac won’t fundamentally attack the race and class and ownership and income and access walls that divide us and exclude the bulk of us. It will offer a Band Aid strip to our gaping wound. A bare minimalist programme that says not a word about what the stakeholders themselves will do to make big lever trade-offs on the economic holy cows they control. Not a word about what they will do to make space to deliver to a way bigger public interest inclusive of all the people of our land. We won’t hear a word about any exchanging of a tax sacrifice, or labour law flexibility, or deep capital sacrifice for new broad-based investments, or access to loans for the start-up micro biz from banks, or earnings ceilings for CEs, or sharing of the land and ownership of enterprise and social spaces with the worker, or host community, or shack dweller, in the interests of the nation. We won’t hear anything like a meaningful genuine social contract that cuts to the heart of the levers of our structural inequality and exclusionary straitjacket. Not a word about tearing walls down and creating a new economic and social order from whatever is left. We won’t hear about that.
We do not have a stakeholder leadership that can decisively act to promote the public interest, as the ultimate litmus test to trump their private stakeholder interest. A leadership that measures every option, every policy and every project, by how it serves the broader public interest to truly build an inclusive economy and society. A leadership committed to share in all ownership, flatten incomes in our society, control prices, open trading and labour markets to all, free loans and drive investment incentives to spawn millions of jobs, and spend ethically and wisely to deliver quality education, health, power and transport services to our nation’s needs. We do not have that kind of leadership.
At best we have process and project management leaders. Leaders who, invested with a healthy dose of political will, might at best be capable of opening the doors to a new national unification conversation, a conversation inclusive of all our people. One that starts with public inclusivity as paramount. One that designs processes to ensure that every village or township or factory or farm is engaged in a dialogue on our economic future. One that could feasibly set an agenda of high-level public interest outcomes required for this conversation: like environmental and ecological integration and biodiversity sustainability targets, health and wealth gap targets, ownership and inclusiveness targets, home market development trading outcome targets, enabling loans for micro/small business support targets and so on.
Then give it to the people and all their representatives to discuss, without exception. Create an economic and social tribunal of all the people, and all their organisations, across the land. Generate a deep and genuine dialogue around needs and what each one can do to deliver to the needs of others. Consolidate the people’s views from the dialogue. Grab hold of the big levers and re-engineer them to meet the needs of the poor. Make the big social and economic trade-offs and manage the economic and social nation building and reunification process.
It looks like a tall order. And it is. It requires all our leaders to shed their armour of hubris and humble themselves before the needs of the nation. But it’s precisely what our stakeholders in Nedlac should do if they are worth their salt, so to speak.
They should look at one another across their Zoom calls or boardroom tables and say together: what binds us here is that we are first and foremost South Africans. SA and all its people must come first. The national interest must trump the stakeholder interest. Every proposal must pass the litmus test of delivering to the national interest above and beyond any secular stakeholder interest. That we will all change together to serve our nation in the first and last instance. We will open ourselves to the voiceless, to the outsiders. Organise and manage the national conversation with the voiceless other. That we will make a qualitative and decisive break with the straitjacket of our past. We will offer our holy cows for sacrifice to the national needs. We will put all our institutions and regulations under the microscope of job creation and inclusive nation litmus tests. We will create from the ashes of old a new nation founded on inclusive ownership, investment, financial and market access, living and lifestyle integration. We will embrace the bottom and create homes for a dialogue for all our people and all their organisations. We will restructure Nedlac to be the coordinator and facilitator that generates the template and process for inclusive economic and social development. We will use Nedlac for the purpose it was created: to seed a growth path founded on an ecologically integrated, shared ownership of our land and all its resources, for all our people. DM