Lisa Seftel, the newly appointed executive director of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), feels it’s too early for her to be giving interviews.
She has brought trinkets and pictures from home to make her new office less imposing, but it is difficult to distract from the emotionless brown palette of Nedlac’s headquarters in Rosebank, Johannesburg.
Some of the pictures she hasn’t put up yet and they lean against the blank, white walls. But Seftel has hung up two mounted newspaper clippings: one that reads “Magic Madiba moments” in bold and another with the headline “A part of me is gone”, former president Nelson Mandela’s tribute to Walter Sisulu.
Seftel’s appointment marks the end of a year-long leadership crisis at Nedlac, which began when a number of officials, including its erstwhile executive director Madoda Vilakazi, were suspended over allegations of financial mismanagement.
The announcement last month that Seftel would be taking over the helm at Nedlac — where government, labour, business and community organisations go to sign off on the country’s social and economic policies — came in the wake of heated debates by legislators and other stakeholders about the council’s relevance.
Seftel says, “It is fortuitous that this Nedlac job came up, actually.”
“Now I’m white, I’m old and I don’t have a master’s. So you go on these websites for consultant jobs or treasury jobs and you put in your name and you put in education and you can’t put in a master’s — you just stop. You can’t go further,” Seftel says.
“So the fact that I am what I am has very little to do with formal education — not to say that I don’t value formal education. But I was so fortunate to be in many of the right places at the right time. And I could learn from, you know, some of the stalwarts of our struggle. And to learn in struggle, I think that’s the most important thing.”
Seftel cut her teeth in politics as a student activist — a path that she says wasn’t questioned by her family.
“My grandparents were Bolsheviks. So I come from that progressive Jewish tradition … My father worked at Baragwanath Hospital as an intern with Winnie [Madikizela-] Mandela and Albertina Sisulu. So I come from a very progressive family. So the moment that I went to university, I got involved in politics.”
In 1990, Seftel began working at trade union federation Cosatu as a campaign co-ordinator. During this time she worked with Jayendra Naidoo, who would eventually become the first executive director of Nedlac in 1995. She calls her experience at Cosatu “a privilege”.
“In a sense, the person that I am today is because I was privileged as I was growing up as an activist to work with people who were not really seasoned at the time, but very committed and passionate,” she says.
“And we were able to develop a very good understanding about strategy and tactics and things like that, which I think held me in good stead both as an activist and as a public servant.”
One of the projects Seftel helped to run was Cosatu’s campaign against value-added tax in 1991. This established labour’s right to have a say on macroeconomic issues. The campaign was the first step towards the formation of the National Economic Forum, Nedlac’s precursor.
In 1995, Seftel joined the department of labour as its director of minimum standards, the directorate responsible for extending the Basic Conditions of Employment Act to workers.
She also served as a member of the labour market chamber at Nedlac where she pushed for a raft of labour laws, including the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and the Employment Equity Act.
Of her work in the first democratic administration, Seftel says: “It was a time when there was a lot of energy. And there was a lot of space.”
She went on to do short stints in local government jobs, including in the Gauteng department of transport and as the Sedibeng municipal manager. Of this period, she simply says: “I stood up for my principles.”
It was during her time as the executive director for transport in the City of Johannesburg that Seftel took on one of the most mammoth undertakings of her career — implementing the Rea Vaya bus rapid transit system. She held the position for more than a decade.
Seftel is now wary that her time in government has drawn her away from labour.
“I am yet to really understand and appreciate how labour has changed … But it’s obviously an important job for me to do coming in here — and I have even been saying to some of the staff that I am meeting — to get back into that shoe of labour,” she says.
“Because one thing I think is very important is that this institution, even though it is funded by government, needs to be independent of any of the parties. So that means that I need to be able to have the same empathetic approach to all the parties. And to have that empathetic approach, you have to understand where they’re each coming from.”
It is with this empathy in mind, in appreciating “the diversity of experiences in South Africa”, that Seftel views the social compact — of which Nedlac is the custodian.
Seftel says the future of the social compact, the implicit agreement among members of a society to co-operate for the common good, is not for her to speculate on. But, she says, “the idea of a single social compact, that can be all embracing of all society, has to problematised”.
“Having said that, for me, at the heart of social compacting, is to get a win-win: there have to be sacrifices on all sides. And I think we are probably at the level of crisis where maybe that is possible.”