Employers to get single voice

After almost two years of negotiations South Africa’s various employer federations are soon to unite formally under a single body with its own secretariat.

A constitution and name are still to be adopted but this body will probably be called the Confederation of Business South Africa (Cobsa). It will represent business in social and economic issues. It could yet be formalised this month, giving South Africa’s business lobby a unity that it has never enjoyed.

As a start, Cobsa (if that is what it is called) will represent South African employers on many of the national and regional forums that have been mushrooming over the past year. It will be the voice of South Africa’s business community on the International Organisation of Employers (IOE), the body that represents employers internationally, particularly in the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The establishment of the national forums and IOE membership, confined to a single representative employer body per country, are the catalysts for Cobsa’s formation. An ILO delegation was in South Africa last week to assist in creating unity.

The “confederation” component of the new body will prove awkward reflecting the tension between Cobsa member employer federations. Until now institutional and personal barriers have prevented unity.

What happens, for example to the South African Chamber of Business (Sacob) and Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut (AHI)? For years they have been the major voice of English and Afrikaans business. They will certainly not disappear, but will their functions be taken over by Cobsa?

Sacob is clear that Cobsa will be a confederation that does not duplicate existing services or costs. This is a suitably vague compromise. Few doubt that Cobsa will ultimately become the main voice of South Africa’s organised business lobby, representing it not only internationally but in delegations to government, labour and other local groups.

Most importantly, as business’ voice in many of the national and regional forums dealing with South Africa’s social and economic reconstruction, it will speak on the big issues and provide policy options. It could also conduct its own research.

Cobsa’s formation is a logical consequence of South Africa’s socio-economic transition. As business interests have coalesced, a process which started especially in response to PW Botha’s government, Sacob (then Assacom and the FCI before they merged), the AHI and other employer groups often sent joint delegations to talk to government and other political groups about social, economic and political issues.

The establishment of the National Economic Forum necessitated that the business lobby be both more coordinated and more representative, in particular to include black business organisations such as Fabcos and Nafcoc. Thus the Business Forum was created, comprising 17 employer bodies. It is the Business Forum that is being formalised into Cobsa.

The Consultative Business Movement (CBM) provides the secretariat to the Business Forum. Talk is that the CBM Itself, created to facilitate dialogue at a time when many political organisations were banned, will close at the end of the year.

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