Talk is crucial, but we must learn how

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If state, labour and business ever meet, they must learn to compromise.

The government and the ANC clearly want to talk to business this year. What is not clear is what they want to say.

Although commentators like to stress the differences between the New Growth Path championed by Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel and the National Development Plan produced by Trevor Manuel's National Planning Commission, both stress the need for talks to achieve compromises between the major economic actors.

The government has done little to promote the conversation - a meeting a while after Marikana is the only sign of progress. But it became clear at Mangaung that this is now a much greater priority - ANC figures talked of the need for social dialogue, the catchphrase for talks between the government, business and labour, and a social compact, the agreement which is meant to emerge from the process. It seems that the need for this process was discussed at Mangaung and that the ANC wants to encourage negotiated compromise.

This could be an important step forward.

There is no way we can fight poverty and achieve a fairer economy without negotiated compromises between the key economic actors. Interests on both the right and left talk as if all our problems would be solved if everyone else simply did what they wanted.

Much of the media and some economists insist that all we need to do is let businesses do what they like and we will soon all have jobs and prosperity. Some on the left talk as if all that is needed is new laws controlling economic activity and a much bigger role for the state and the same goal will be achieved. Neither side has all the answers. But even if they did, they would not be able to get what they want because others are powerful enough to prevent them getting it.

Unions will not allow the protections workers have won to disappear and many other interest groups would resist the removal of the other protections which restrict what businesses can do. If government simply imposes restrictions on business and the wealthy, the economy will not have the money and skills it needs to grow and to address poverty.

If we want rising living standards and a much fairer economy the only way to achieve it is, therefore, through negotiated compromises in which each party accepts that it can only get more of what it wants by conceding to the others some of what they want.

This will not be a quick or easy process. While many of us seem to think that social compromise can happen at a conference over two or three days, it can only be achieved in years. The parties' positions are not close and the gap cannot be bridged at one grand event. Even if they did agree, those they represent would not accept the deal. This is why previous economic summits have achieved little.

Progress, if it happens, will come through limited agreements on specific issues over a lengthy period.

It will be accompanied by conflict and jockeying for position between the parties. Imagining that they can simply come together and work out a deal is like believing that apartheid could have been ended if everyone had sat round a table for a few days in the 1970s.

So, if the government and ANC are serious about negotiating compromises, they need a strategy which works out what they can reasonably hope to get, what they would have to do to get it, and what they might need to give in return, given the power balance.

If the ANC did think about this at Mangaung or during last year, it is not telling us. The documents which have been released are, in the main, the opposite of a potentially effective strategy - beyond the language about the need for change, it is hard to find any concrete proposals for sharing wealth more fairly while encouraging the economy's growth.

The ANC may hope that talking tough will prepare the wealthy for change. But unless that is accompanied by workable proposals, all it does is harden attitudes without achieving progress. So, if dialogue is to make a dent on poverty and inequality, the ANC and government will need to float coherent proposals.

Nor is there any sign of a strategy to increase the ANC's power to win changes. That would need an ability to mobilise its supporters behind its proposals and to win the backing of those who do not support it but who do want a fairer society which rolls back poverty.

None of this is in evidence either - it is almost as if ANC leaders believe that pointing out to wealthy interests that inequality is a problem will win the argument. It won't unless they have winnable goals and a serious strategy for winning them.

The ANC's interest in social dialogue is an important start if it wants growth which includes everyone. But the start will be a false one unless it is accompanied by far more of a strategy than we have seen up to now.

  • 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.