From hot seat to think-tank

Why are you leaving the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac)?

My contract is a five-year one. I set personal objectives and I’ve achieved them. When I took the job, I said I wanted to get the institution back on track and to help put in place what is now called the growth and development strategy.
Also, you’re not ready to leave until you’re offered the right job, and I’ve been offered the right job.

What is that job?

In my discussions with Wilmot James [the director of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)], he asked me to run a project on social capital, how it works and what its role in development is. It ties in with my work at Nedlac and it’s an important thing for me to do for my personal development. We’re likely to tie up with a university to ensure its impact is widespread.

What do you understand by “social capital”?

It’s about building relations of trust, cohesion and reciprocity in society. It’s in vogue with the international financial institutions, but often people talk about it to avoid talking about real capital. It’s essential to build social capital so that everybody feels they have a stake.

Is your new job a lifestyle choice? 

Not at all. I’m still very active in politics — I’m the treasurer of the [South African] Communist Party and a national executive committee member of the African National Congress. The HSRC programme will be very intense, so this is not about winding down. What will be different is that I won’t have to commute so much.

You’re leaving at a crucial time — the Growth and Development Summit is probably the most important meeting in Nedlac’s history …

I’m going to be running the process for the summit until it is complete, even though I start work at the HSRC on July 1.

What have you achieved at Nedlac?

When I took over people were predicting its closure. I said at the time that when I left, I’d like it to be seen as critical to society and feel that it makes a difference. Nobody talks about closing Nedlac now. We’ve dealt with the key labour market legislation and held a jobs summit — and those results have been rolled out. There have been sectoral summits [in information and communication technology; financial services and others] and the launch of the Proudly South African campaign.

I’d say there has been huge progress, but we still have a long way to go in creating jobs, promoting investment and reducing inequality in our society — these are the themes of the Growth and Development Summit. None of these things is going to happen overnight, so the summit should not be seen as a quick fix.

Let’s go back a bit. What did the financial sector summit achieve?

It led to discussion on a financial services charter. In the end, many more people should have access to finance, though it has also ensured discussion about ownership, management and control of the sector. At the moment, the sector conducts itself as an island, but it should be integrated into society.

Many forums are doing what Nedlac is meant to do — like President Thabo Mbeki’s working groups with business and labour.

Is this a problem?

Besides the working groups, you’ve also got the Millennium Labour Council [a bilateral negotiating forum for business and labour], but I believe this should be seen as a fruit of Nedlac. It shows that social dialogue is seen to add value to society. Once people have reached consensus, they can bring it to Nedlac to be formalised.  We’re one of the few countries in the developing world that has a forum like this. In a society with such extremes of poverty and wealth and with a history like South Africa’s, it helps to build trust and shows the notion of partnership is more than just a slogan.

Why is this spirit of dialogue not reflected in public debate, where the key partners seem perpetually locked in conflict and speaking from and for their own corner?

That debate is the social dialogue. It’s not that you say nice things all the time. Take HIV/Aids, it’s been there ever since I got to Nedlac. It took one of the social partners — the community sector — to draw up a proposal and place it on the table. We’re still trying to finalise the agreement and hope to have a meeting after Easter, though a lot of heat has been generated on the issue.

The presidency suggested the agreement is best housed and negotiated in the South African National Aids Council, not Nedlac …

Any issue that’s of interest to the social partners can be brought to Nedlac, which is not an implementing agency. Besides, the agreement states quite clearly that that the Aids council will drive the agreement.   

Nedlac often cites the end of adversarial labour relations as a key achievement. How do you measure this?

We’ve put in place very sound labour market policies [the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration; the Labour Relations Act and the Employment Equity Act] that have produced a level of responsibility and maturity between the government business and labour that would not have been possible without Nedlac.

The lead-up to the growth summit is being muddied by accusations and counter-accusations about who is responsible for the delay. What is the story?

That’s just irrelevant. The parties have exchanged base documents and timing is not the principal issue in my opinion.

Will the summit deal with both macroeconomic and microeconomic policy?

This week, the Congress of South African Trade Unions criticised statements by government ministers that there will be no fundamental policy change.

These are growth and development strategies, and all policy issues are relevant if discussion is about reaching objectives. It’s important not to get caught in past debates. At the same time, there should be no holy cows.

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