The tragic events at Marikana, in the North West province, have cast a long shadow across South Africa and it is incumbent upon government, business, labour and civil society to use the period of darkness for genuine soul searching and reflection. But there is also a need for the social partners to begin lighting a few candles of hope for a shattered society.
A few pinpricks of light did appear at the seventeenth National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) summit, which took place at Ekurhuleni recently. The gathering did not attract much media attention, mainly owing to a feeling that Nedlac has lost its way. Nevertheless, the analysis that emerged was somewhat encouraging.
For one, organised business signalled that there is a need to “redefine” corporate success in South Africa in line with the concept of “shared value”, whereby profits would be optimised rather than maximised to ensure a reconnection between business accomplishment and social development and inclusion.
Business Unity of South Africa president Jabu Mabuza said that this shared-value vision was premised on improved integration between the creation of economic and social value.
To achieve this, companies would need to develop a far deeper understanding of community needs and challenges and reconnect company success with social development. “At a very basic level, the competitiveness of a company and the health of the communities around it are closely intertwined. Business needs a successful community and a successful community needs business.”
In his address on behalf of organised labour, Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi asserted the recent events near the Lonmin operation also highlighted the need for greater urgency in addressing inequality – a “ticking bomb” that became an “exploded bomb” at Marikana.
The poor and marginalised were saying, “Wake up and do something about our situation”, Vavi averred.
Mabuza, Vavi and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, who also addressed the meeting, reaffirmed the commitment of government business, labour and organised community groups to using social dialogue as a tool to finding solutions to the current breakdown in social cohesion, which was the result of poverty, unemployment and inequality.
Business and government expressed a desire for the forging of a new “social compact”, based on a common vision and supported by pragmatic short- and long-term action plans.
Taking his lead from the recently published National Development Plan 2030, which was earlier officially endorsed by Cabinet, Motlanthe said that, despite low trust levels and the problems of representivity, a “social contract could contribute to providing the political, economic and social conditions for long-run development”.
“We should strive to find a common vision to take us forward. Now is the time to begin laying the basis for a social contract for our labour relations and our labour market that will contribute to achieving a more equitable and inclusive form of economic growth,” he added.
But all stakeholders also acknowledged that Nedlac, which some felt had run its course and should be closed, needed to be overhauled to become a more effective platform for dialogue.
Participants lamented a declining quality of participation in Nedlac structures, some of which had been reduced to a “talk shop”, owing to the fact that some social partners were sending junior representatives, who had no mandate or authority to take decisions.
It was also accepted that, despite being time-consuming and often frustrating, there was simply no alternative to rekindling social dialogue, which had been so key in South Africa’s difficult transition from apartheid to democracy.
But sound analysis now needs to be backed by concrete and visible action to ensure the candles of hope can be seen shining across the country, the continent and the world.