If the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) is to play a role in getting South Africa out of its economic malaise, it will have to undergo a reconfiguration, a radical repositioning, and be better resourced.
The clearinghouse between business, labour, government and community organisations was established through an act of parliament in 1994 during the dying days of apartheid, with the aim of creating broad-ranging social compacts to drive economic development.
It has had some success, like the National Minimum Wage Bill that was implemented at the start of the year. Even so, there is a realisation that its best days might be behind it.
This was in a way acknowledged at is its annual summit on Wednesday when Business Unity SA (Busa) challenged the leadership of the forum to “introspect” on how it can position itself to deal with the economic challenges of the day.
Fit for purpose?
“The time has come for a new agenda for sustainable change for the state of our nation and consequently, as Nedlac, we must ask if we are able to be catalysts for that change,” business representative Sipho Pityana told delegates.
About 25 years down the line, said Pityana, the forum cannot afford to “rest on its laurels” as the challenges of insignificant job creation and jobless growth remain, and the increasingly automating and digitising nature of work is displacing thousands of unskilled and underskilled workers.
Pityana said the forum, which is considered the apex social dialogue structure in the country, must ask itself if it is fit for purpose or whether it should be “relegated to the scrapyard of history”.
Job creation is one of the most pressing issues of the present day with various companies announcing retrenchments as economic activity fails to pick up; unemployment has climbed up to just under 30% with no sign of slowing down.
Pityana said the various social partners had to create an agenda that looks beyond legislation and sets its sights on preserving and creating meaningful and safe jobs.
“The urgency of the times suggests that Nedlac is well-suited to lead the charge in navigating us into a set of compacts around a range of issues, it may be Eskom, or restructuring other state entities or agreeing to partner with the private sector,” he said.
He asked if Nedlac should not play a greater role in drawing up a blueprint on what the country needs to do in order to avoid a ratings downgrade from Moody’s especially when this could have a negative impact on jobs.
He went on to ask if the forum should not “open-mindedly” engage with National Treasury’s discussion document which proposes a series of reforms to drive inclusive economic growth and employment.
Trade union federation Cosatu outrightly rejected the paper, which proposes the partial privatisation of Eskom and an exemption of small and medium enterprises from paying the minimum wage, among other things.
All a dream
Labour representative Bheki Ntshalintshali was unmoved by Pityana’s speech, saying that while labour started the year on a high note, following the presidential jobs summit and the implementation of the national minimum wage and other labour agreements, nine months down the line he says labour can only confirm that “it was just a dream”.
Ntshalinsthali said labour had started to question its commitment to social dialogue which it understands as needing to be transparent, committed and built on trust where differences are dealt with openly.
“How then do we explain to our members that there was a commitment to job creation and decent work [at the jobs summit] but instead we hear of retrenchments almost every day,” he asked.
He further asked how unions are meant to explain to workers that although the national minimum wage had come into effect on January 1, nine months later there are those in government who hold a different view.
“This makes us very uncomfortable to come to this meeting because we don’t know the value of our engagement and the agreements that we have and if they will be implemented,” he said.