Bargaining starts with the truth, not platitudes

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If negotiation was about people agreeing with each other, there would be no need for it. And so, the more negotiators say things most of their listeners would prefer not to hear, the more the bargaining is real.

Little more than a month ago, African National Congress (ANC) leaders at Mangaung were signalling that they wanted to negotiate with business and other interests. Today, Anglo American Platinum’s (Amplats’) warning that 14,000 jobs may be at stake as it restructures has prompted noisy denunciation of the company and threats to revoke its mining licence. This may seem to show that the promised negotiation of our economic future is a fantasy. In reality, it shows that it has begun.

Calls for a "social compact" or an "economic Codesa", a negotiated compromise between the major economic interests, are common across the political spectrum. But widespread support for bargaining does not seem to be accompanied by a realistic understanding of what it entails.

Many who call for a compact seem to have in mind another of the summits held since we became a democracy. The pattern is familiar. Leaders of the government, business, labour and other interests gather for a couple of days amid nice-sounding statements about their common ground. They emerge with agreements and promise to work with each other to implement them.

These events may evoke a warm glow, but they achieve little or nothing — and the warm glow is the reason. Ours is a divided society and so there is no consensus on the way forward for the economy. Trust between the government, business and labour is low and there is no broad agreement on the roles of the state and market, or on who should make the sacrifices that inclusive growth will require. This makes the summit model of moving forward futile. It assumes that, deep down, the parties see the world in much the same way — hence the expressions of goodwill. If that were so, a few days of serious talking would isolate the common positions and yield agreement on how to put them into practice. But it isn’t so.

Because the parties are far apart and deeply distrust each other, this approach is a delusion that induces a loss of focus.

What does a real negotiation, which might take us forward, look like? Think no further than the average industrial bargaining round — the parties take up positions and issue dire warnings of the evil that will befall us if the other party’s view prevails. This continues as they test their strength — and invariably ends in an agreed compromise.

This is the type of negotiated pact that is possible in this society. When the parties appear at joint media conferences expressing harmony, we can safely conclude that no progress has been made.

When they engage in the rough business of trying to persuade the society that they are the solution and their bargaining partners the problem, but still manage to thrash out a workable arrangement, we have reason to expect forward movement.

Similarly, when business, the government and labour claim they have achieved a shared vision of the future, we can conclude that they are saying what they think everyone else wants to hear. When they hammer out concrete agreements, focused on particular industries or geographical areas or issues, it is far more likely that hard bargaining has happened and that the outcome will need to be taken seriously. This does not necessarily mean that no agreement on the bigger issues is possible. But, if it happens, it will need to develop out of a process in which more modest deals are made on the way. If we accept that this is our most feasible path to a society in which everyone has a stake in a growing economy, attitudes to progress in the mainstream debate need to be turned on their head. When the parties engage in tough bargaining and threaten all sorts of dire consequences, we see progress — if they are also willing to bargain a compromise. If they hide their differences behind nice-sounding platitudes, we see a lack of seriousness.

This is why the dispute over Amplats’ plans is a step forward. The company and the governing party are behaving precisely as we would expect parties to a negotiation to behave. Threats on both sides are exaggerated for effect as the parties begin to talk. If, as seems likely, they do reach agreement, it is inevitable that both will have shifted their positions because parties to a bargain always do. The issue is not what they say at the beginning but what they agree at the end.

So the Amplats controversy does not show that the talk of a social compact was hot air. On the contrary, it shows that it was serious and that the bargaining required to move towards it has begun. We may see much more of the same during this year.

If the media are filled with sounds that the mainstream needs to hear, not those it wants to hear, we will be moving forward at last.

• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and University of Johannesburg. This article was published on Business Day Live.