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Collaborative partnerships are need if we are to move towards the South Africa of our dreams, writes Paul Mashatile

Since assuming the role of Deputy President of the Republic in April, I have criss-crossed the country to engage many a stakeholder. This is crucial since governments have an obligation to listen to as many sectors of society as they must continuously implement policy measures to improve the lives of the people.

South Africans have happily passed the futile state of doubt and hesitation about the need for co-operation between government, business, and labour in addressing common national problems and challenges.

We should expect that the three social partners will not always see eye to eye. Differences are inherent to all social relationships and successful democracies eschew echo-chambers.

But the wisdom of sustained purposeful dialogue, especially in instances of disagreements, cannot be gainsaid.

Throughout my engagements with the social partners, I have gained the impression that with sustained engagement, government, business, and labour can find each other on the pressing issue of reducing inequality, poverty, and unemployment.

To be successful, engagement should be premised on a commitment to an honest appraisal of each other and an appreciation of the national interest, which also requires that each sector seriously think about the compromises it must make to achieve national goals. The point cannot be emphasised enough: we sink or swim together.

Furthermore, whatever one’s ideological orientation may be, their party political affiliation or, for that matter, whatever political party governs South Africa—a post-colonial and post-apartheid polity, with everything implicit in the characterisation—inequality, poverty, and unemployment are not only a blight on the conscience of the nation; they are tinder for an inferno of social and political instability.

In 2013, Mark Cutifani, the then CEO of Anglo American, told that year’s gathering of the Mining Indaba in Cape Town: “The job of those who have stewardship of capital is to support society…”

Of the mining industry, he said: “We have to think beyond our historical characterisation and eliminate a conversation that talks to us being an ‘Extractive Industry’. While we may extract products from rocks—we are overwhelmingly a ‘Development Industry’ that creates new social possibilities. We should be the ‘Development Partner’ that supports and catalyses the creation of wealth for all…”

“We each have a responsibility to be a leader—to seek a new future and be the first to extend a hand in partnership to those that will develop this brave new world we all want to be part of…”

Government, business, and labour should rise to the challenge as leaders who extend hands in partnership to develop the brave new world we all want to be part of. We must do more to reach out to one another, especially because the world can be a manufactory of constructive engagement and information inasmuch as it can be an unsightly warzone of misinformation and disinformation which can lay to waste all but the most steadfast and shutter relations built over a long time.

As a general rule, leaders across society should avoid navel-gazing and the deleterious chatter of idle lips.

Whereas the economy is gradually returning to pre-COVID levels, we should also strive to increase new entrants into the labour market. Government and business should partner in funding new infrastructure investment projects which have the potential to stimulate local economies.

More generally, the government is making steady progress in unlocking logjams in the economy. With the partnership and support of Operation Vulindlela, the Department of Water and Sanitation is working towards resolving 80% of water-use licences within 90 days.

The government is also intensifying efforts to eliminate red tape and simplify administrative procedures in the public service. Part of the growth we desperately need will come from eliminating red tape, improving efficiency and productivity, as well and working in smart ways—in short, getting government to work better.

All these efforts will succeed only to the extent that they register a material difference in the lives of ordinary people sooner rather than later.

Their sustainability will also take hold only to the extent that the social partners respect each other’s core mandates and concerns.

Government must still exercise and fulfil its regulatory responsibility in the public interest, as patriotic as it should be. Shareholders will undoubtedly continue to expect dividends from business executives and labour should remain true to its existential mission of being the voice and shield of workers.

So, in addition to the material impact that current reforms exert on the quality of life of the people, another key ingredient to the success of the social partnership will be the avoidance of dogmatic positions, the tendency to bury our heads in the sand like the ostrich, and heightened awareness to the dangers of what some social theorists refer to as “elite-pacting.”

It is also true that overwhelmingly private-sector driven economies such as ours depend on the extent to which the business sector invests in the productive sectors of the economy. Local and international businesses surely appreciate the evolution of ANC economic policy over the decades and the dangers attached to presiding over a democracy devoid of social content.

It bears mentioning that political stability is critical to all our endeavours. It exists side by side another essential: social stability. Both these hold the possibility to create what Cutifani referred to as new social possibilities which support and catalyse the creation of wealth for all.

In August, we convened a national dialogue on coalitions at the University of the Western Cape. We sought to develop consensus on managing coalitions, especially at the local level. Experience has taught us that without a framework which privileges the public good, all manner of interests can conspire to undermine the national interest.

The Constitution directs the government, regardless of the party that leads, to work for the attainment of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic, and prosperous South Africa. Whether they are a coalition or not, government must put people first, commit to work towards poverty eradication, grow the economy, and create an inclusive society. Coalitions must commit themselves to good governance. Above all, coalitions do not absolve political parties from respecting the will of the people. As such, they should always be based on the actual votes received by each party in an election.

The fact that the dialogue took place was, in and of itself, a positive development. Apart from the the hallowed chambers of the legislature, South African political parties hardly ever meet together to exchange views about how to address common national challenges, which undoubtedly impact on our national culture, not to mention the seeming increasing levels of polarisation that impact on the nation’s ability to tend together in the national interest.

At the dialogue, I cited an account by Somalian diplomat, Ambassador Mohamed Osman Omar, who attributed the failure of his country after the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in January 1991 to “power struggle without restraint” on the part of Somalia’s leadership. Omar decried the Somali leadership for its “self-aggrandisement, absence of discipline and national spirit” which had led them to pursue Somalia’s narrow “social cleavages based on clan loyalties”—never “willing to learn from our own or from other [people’s] follies.”

Since no nation has exclusive ownership of negative and positive attributes, we can safely assert that this trait is as Somalian as it is universal. Mark Cutifani’s 2013 insights can help us to ward off our national spirit.

So, we not only need continuous engagement between government, business and labour. We also need sustained inter-party dialogue, for at the risk of sounding like a broken record: we sink or swim together.

Paul Mashatile is the 9th Deputy President of South Africa.