Should a movement which has been in government for almost 20 years react to business in the same way as one fighting for freedom?
The first few weeks of the year have confirmed what began to become clear at Mangaung – that the ANC wants business to show greater commitment to the needs of this country’s majority.
That is not a problem – it is what we should expect from a party many of whose voters are still denied economic opportunity by the impact of our past. But the way in which it is being done does seem to be a problem.
Shortly after Mangaung, both the president and ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa urged business to become more sensitive to poverty and inequality. But neither offered any proposals. The unspoken message seemed to be that the governing party was not sure what it wanted companies to do but that it assumed that business would know what was needed. This sounded very much like asking business to solve a problem for which the ANC has no solution.
When Anglo American Platinum announced that it might shed 14000 jobs, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe responded much more forcefully. He accused the company of failing to show respect by not talking to the government first. People close to him and the ANC leadership say he was particularly angry because he and other ANC leaders had risked much at Mangaung to get through resolutions which calmed business fears. They felt that they were being “rewarded” with a slap in the face.
Unlike his colleagues, Mantashe did not seem to imply that business had all the answers and could fix the problem if it wanted. But part of the reason for his response did seem to be the belief that business should know how to respond to an ANC goodwill gesture even if the ANC had put nothing concrete on the table.
In both cases there are parallels with the way business was seen during the struggle period before this country became a democracy. At that stage, whites were seen to hold all the power and business was a powerful force in white society. The ANC and other movements fighting for freedom realised that business could play a role in weakening the system. But it was in no position to bargain with business – the one thing businesses wanted – an end to conflict in the factories and townships – was not something the movement could give because this would weaken the fight against the system.
And so the only weapon it had to press business to be helpful was moral pressure – it did not make proposals and bargain them, it appealed to moral principles. Companies were largely left to work out what they were meant to do.
This made sense during the fight against apartheid, but there was very little logic to it afterwards. The ANC and its allies did have power now and so they could negotiate rather than use moral pressure. But despite this, the previous attitude continued.
An example was the way key people in the government handled reparations for victims of apartheid abuses.
They believed, with much of the country, that people who had suffered direct abuses – people who had lost loved ones to the apartheid security forces, for example – should receive compensation. Some in the ANC responded by urging business to do more to look after apartheid’s victims.
This was a strange request. The ANC was now the government – it could pass laws compensating victims and it could, if it wanted, raise taxes to pay for this.
Since business would no doubt have objected to the taxes, it could have done what it and other governments routinely do in situations like this: it could have published its proposals and negotiated them with business.
There is a big difference between negotiation and moral pressure. Government negotiators work out what they want, convey it to those with whom they negotiate and then hammer out a deal. This is far more appropriate than moral pressure because it enables the government to frame clear goals and a strategy for meeting them. It is an exercise of power, not an admission of powerlessness.
It is also better for those with whom it negotiates because they know what is expected of them and can decide how far they are willing to go and what they want in return.
For most of the past 15 years the ANC and the government have largely been negotiating, not moralising.
The return to moral pleading is, therefore, a change. The reason may be that the governing party again feels powerless – it knows that serious action against poverty and inequality is needed but it also learned last year that if you alienate business, you pay a price, and so it cannot risk imposing change on business.
The return to moral pleading may reflect this.
But the ANC is not powerless. While it lacks the power to dictate terms to business, it certainly does have enough to make clear to it what it wants and to negotiate for it.
If it wants the negotiated deal with business, which most government documents on the economy have been urging, it needs a clear sense of what it wants to achieve.
It also needs a strategy which takes into account how much power it has and how much those who could frustrate it have – and offer a plan for getting the best deal in the circumstances.
It is possible that a programme and a strategy exist but that it has not been made public. But that seems unlikely, not only because there is no sign of it in ANC documents but also because relying on moral pleading is an admission that there is no negotiating strategy.
The ANC should bargain with business on ways to deal with poverty and inequality. But it cannot do that effectively unless it abandons pleading and makes a plan to use its power to negotiate.
- Steven Friedman is the director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg. This article was published on The New Age.