President Jacob Zuma on Wednesday urged business leaders to seize opportunities in Africa before "people from far away" do so – and to settle wage talks swiftly and get the economy running at full steam again.
It was a week in which Zuma, as ANC president, ignited a furore by quoting scripture to say South Africans should respect their leaders. It was a week in which BMW said it scrapped potential expansion of its manufacturing facilities. It was the very day the Supreme Court of Appeal dismissed what could well be the final legal challenge against urban freeway tolling. But when the president spoke to business leaders on Wednesday night, he made no mention of any of these issues.
Instead, he urged them to move fast to exploit business opportunities on the rest of the continent, and to apply equal haste in reaching agreement with workers demanding better conditions and higher wages.
South Africa's economy is facing "strong headwinds", Zuma told a gala dinner of the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Sacci), partially rooted in a global economic trouble, but also related to domestic problems.
"Our country has a progressive labour-relations framework enshrined in both the Constitution and labour laws," Zuma told delegates, ranging from the leaders of major corporations to small-scale entrepreneurs. "Our message to employers and labour is that with the advantage of such a legal framework, they should conclude labour negotiations and disputes swiftly."
Zuma did not specify which sectors of the economy most concerned his administration, or what business and labour leaders should do to reach agreement – other than to accept the need for compromise.
Lack of ambition
"What I think business should do, as well as labour, [is] appreciate that there is a global economic meltdown and therefore the situation is not as normal," he said, in a departure from his prepared speech.
Zuma also deviated from his official remarks to twice warn that should South African entrepreneurs and companies fail to exploit business opportunities elsewhere on the African continent, people from "far away" would snatch such opportunities away.
"It is always good to get there first," he said, to a room featuring Chinese delegates. "And if we don't' get there as African business then people from far away get there first, then we complain later to say they are interfering with us."
Of particular concern, it seems, is South Africa's heavy focus on its immediate neighbours and relative lack of ambition further north. In terms of exports to the rest of the continent, Zuma said, 87% are destined for countries within the Southern African Development Community, and only 2% to Central and North Africa.
"But the fact of the matter is that they are very keen that South African companies must come to invest. I think we must not lose an opportunity."