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Nedlac chief calls for consensus to aid growth

The new chief of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) Alistair Smith said on Tuesday it cannot be business as usual for his organisation, which has come under increasing criticism and accusations of being inefficient.

Smith said growth and unemployment issues will not be resolved unless some kind of consensus is achieved among business, labour, government and civil society about the objectives of the country.

He was speaking at a press briefing in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

Smith, who took over as executive director last year, gave some insight into the challenges he sees facing Nedlac and the solutions being considered.

"South Africa still has an adversarial approach to collective bargaining. We still approach issues in a very ideological rhetorical way and we continue that way until we hit a crisis.

"We [labour, business, civil society and government] are not good at problem-solving unless we are at a precipice," he said.

"The biggest challenge is clearly the state of the global economy … how do we deal with it and structural problems in the South African economy. The real issue is how to get into making the trade-offs necessary to lead to the structural changes that need to take place."

Disputed legislation
One of the challenges is going to be how to accommodate a new labour configuration, namely emerging independent unions such as the Association of Mines and Construction Union, that cannot be represented by Cosatu and the Federation of Unions of South Africa.

"In some countries labour is not represented in bodies like Nedlac by federations, but by an overriding body," he said.

"If someone new comes knocking at our door, we will have to deal with that."

Nedlac needs "to find the space to have discussions around some of the issues that need to be discussed objectively".

"We want to encourage these conversations," he said.

Facilitators were brought to assist with discussions around a recent Bill, he said. "We found this sort of thing worked well and we are looking at bringing experts in on certain projects."

An undertaking is already in effect to take no longer than six months to process legislation. Three months if it is not disputed legislation.

He said Nedlac has tended to get stuck in the process in the past.

Limited budget
Smith said it is important to keep in mind Nedlac's brief, which includes, "to promote participation in economic decision making" which incorporates community input. That was never going to be a clean cut or speedy undertaking, he said. "Finding consensus is hard."

Nedlac recently undertook a review of the organisation, which was last conducted in 2006, to look at how to make the council, which has 30 staff members and a limited budget more efficient.

Accusations that government does not take Nedlac seriously was leveled at the organisation in June this year when the parliamentary portfolio committee on labour rejected labour brokers and strike ballots in an apparent contradiction to proposals by Nedlac, without sending it back to Nedlac for further discussion.

Smith said Nedlac had never actually reached consensus on those issues, as the report showed, so Parliament was within its right to make the finding it did. "We were never going to reach consensus around labour brokering, and the report indicated that," he said.

The extent to which Nedlac is embraced by government ministries does differ, he admitted. But where the council had a good relationship with a ministry, "such as the department of trade and industry, the benefit was obvious". "Legislation and policy is processed a lot faster," he said.

The council plans to make it clear in its reports where there is consensus, agreement and disagreement around issues to provide more clarity on the outcome of the discussions.

He said that despite the criticism of the organisation, Nedlac still has a vital role to play in working to address the structural problems inherited in 1994, and to ensure that all sectors of society are represented with regard to economic decision-making.

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