Could this be watershed year of negotiation and compromise?

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It is just possible that this year will be a year of talking, not yelling. However, this depends on how the key economic interests react to a political environment in which talking has become both possible and essential.

The most important development at Mangaung was not Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as African National Congress (ANC) deputy president. It was, rather, a clear signal that the government takes business seriously and wants to talk to it — and, of course, to other key economic interests. Whether that takes society forward will depend on how serious the parties are about talking and on whether they really want to make the process work.

The belief that Ramaphosa’s election will bring great changes repeats a fallacy that often shapes analyses of this society — the belief that our problems are caused by "bad leaders" and will go away if "good" ones take their place.

None of the country’s or the governing party’s problems were caused by individuals. The country’s problems stem from a legacy of poverty and inequality and the failure of any of our major interests — the government, business and labour — to find a workable way out of that past (or at least enough of one — as the census shows, some progress has been made over the past two decades). And the ANC’s problems are caused by its failure to combat this legacy — in its own ranks as well as the society. A change in deputy president is not going to make much difference to this.

Ramaphosa was not elected because much of the ANC supports him and wants him to change the movement and the country. He was chosen because he was part of a slate headed by President Jacob Zuma — he was not even the slate’s biggest vote winner. Even if he wanted to move the ANC in a different direction, he would not have the mandate or power to do this.

Nor is there evidence that he does want to change the movement and the country. Like Zuma, Ramaphosa’s bent is not visionary leadership but crafting compromises: this is what he did at the National Union of Mineworkers and as the ANC’s chief constitutional negotiator. He may make businesspeople feel better but even that is not necessarily a plus, as it may weaken his ability to take key sections of the ANC alliance, such as organised labour, with him. But this is no counsel of despair. An individual can’t fix the ANC’s or the country’s problems because an individual did not cause them. And so the re-election of Zuma and his slate is not a setback — if conditions have emerged that make progress more likely.

The prognosis for the country may be better than that for the ANC.

On the latter, this year may see less of the very public bleeding to which the governing party was prone last year. The winning slate’s victory may have been decisive enough to force its opponents into the silence we saw from Thabo Mbeki’s supporters in the wake of Polokwane. But there is no sign that the ANC is any closer to fixing the underlying problems. Factionalism and "ill discipline" were denounced at Mangaung. But they have been denounced before with little effect.

There are no signs that contest has been accepted as the norm within the ANC and that enforceable rules have been developed to manage it. And so, even if this year sees a surface calm — and not even that is inevitable — the old tensions may continue to simmer and new ones may emerge.

But the country may enjoy an opportunity this year that seemed unavailable last year.

Mangaung signalled clearly that the ANC is worried about negative perceptions in local and international business and wants to fix them. This is why its "selective nationalisation" resolution, itself only a restatement of existing policy, was watered down to remove the "n" word.

It is also why the anticipated post-Mangaung panic about the ANC’s intentions towards business did not happen: there was no evidence of any hostility towards business.

But the ANC is also forced to recognise that simply soothing business is not a solution to the poverty and inequality whose effects were so evident last year. And so it also has to do something to encourage the economic change that may begin to address these ills. The obvious way forward, given its need both to retain business confidence and introduce change, is negotiated compromise. This explains why ANC officials at Mangaung repeatedly stressed the need for dialogue and a social compact.

While this has been a government goal for some time, reflected in its key economic policy documents, the double squeeze to which the ANC — and society — is now subject means that negotiated compromise is now an imperative: the only way forward that might address poverty and inequality while also stimulating growth.

This is an opportunity for society — no economic interest has the power to impose its vision on the others and so negotiated compromise is the only way forward. Whether it will be achieved is less clear. The ANC and the government repeatedly extol social dialogue and compacts, but there is little evidence of a strategy for making them happen. And, even if they happen, they will not yield progress unless the parties adopt strategies that realistically assess their own strengths and weaknesses and those of their bargaining partners. It is unclear yet whether any of them are anywhere near this.

The ANC, in the wake of Mangaung, has offered little more than moral appeals stressing that our current inequality levels are unsustainable. That is, at best, the beginning of a conversation. The nearest it has come to proposals that can be negotiated is its endorsement of the National Development Plan — as this consists of hundreds of pages and almost as many proposals, it falls short of a concrete negotiating position.

Business’s readiness for serious talking is also far from clear — negotiated compromise requires strong business associations able to bind their members: we don’t have any. The statements of business’s position that are available are little more than repetitions of well-worn stances — innovative proposals for change are thin on the ground.

Another key party to a compromise, labour, may be better able than organised business to bind its members but is as ill-equipped for bargaining. The unions are divided on strategy and also more inclined to repeat established positions than to float new ideas.

So the potential with which this year begins may not be realised; the talk of social compromise may turn out to have been little more than a phase (or phrase), and the finger-pointing and bickering of last year may continue.

But, whether or not the opportunity is taken, circumstances have conspired to make this a year of potential. The ANC was reminded last year that the cost of our inequalities is rising. But it was also reminded of the price of alienating investors. And so it has been forced to seek a new path to growth and to recognise its need to work with the other economic actors. If the other key interests draw the same conclusion — that they need to bargain compromises that produce a fairer society — this year could be a watershed.

• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy. This article was published on Business Day Live.