Take trust deficit seriously if you want to talk

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

BUSINESS and the government will not find out what they have in common unless they look harder at what divides them.

Last week, after a discussion in which I told a business audience that the African National Congress (ANC) may be eager now to start serious negotiations on the economy, an industrialist privately offered a perspective. "Of course, we need to talk to government," he said, "but finding people to talk to is so hard." Unlike many others who make the same complaint, he did not blame the ignorance, hostility and unreliability of governing-party politicians. "It is so hard," he said, "because levels of trust are so low."

His remark highlighted the key barrier to economic progress here: that business on the one hand, and government and labour on the other, deeply distrust each other. Part of the reason lies in our past. It should be trite, but isn’t, to note that the attitudes that underpinned apartheid did not disappear magically in 1994. Many in business still harbour the belief that governing-party politicians are interested in business only for what they can get out of it. The view that ANC politicians cannot be trusted to do anything but take what they are not entitled to, is widespread: it mirrors attitudes common before 1994. Some might be exempt — Trevor Manuel and Cyril Ramaphosa spring to mind — but only because they are seen as rare exceptions.

For their part, ANC politicians had no reason, for much of their adult lives, to feel warmly about business. They were excluded by racial laws from participating in business except as manual workers. Business was often seen as a core element of the white establishment that ruled over the black majority. To expect this history to instill trust is unreasonable, particularly when politicians have good reason to suspect that many of the old attitudes still exist. Part of their mistrust stems from a sense that apartheid was so horrific, and business’s role in it so clear, that businesses should have spent the past 20 years making amends, but haven’t.

The mistrust does not mean the two sides never talk — they do because both know they have to take the other seriously. But the engagement is often forced and grudging: compromises are limited and usually short-lived. While the election may have opened opportunities for negotiations, it is hard to see them achieving their potential if the trust problem is ignored.

What can be done? Government politicians should think more strategically. If the only relationship between business and the government is grudging coexistence, trust is not a big problem. But, if the government wants serious negotiations, it cannot sweep the trust issue under the carpet: either it must seek to narrow the gap or to devise an approach to negotiation that is based more on hard-nosed strategy than the hope for a moral "conversion" by business leadership.

For business people who recognise the need to engage seriously with the government, the first step is a recognition that the mistrust is understandable and that it must be addressed, not dismissed as a sign that ANC politicians really are as bad as pre-1994 prejudices said they were.

A useful start would acknowledge that the racial mistrust that dogs our economy is not restricted to politicians and is not simply a product of the past. In a recent radio discussion on a channel whose listeners are, in the main, black professionals, caller after caller declared that they were planning to vote for the Economic Freedom Fighters in Gauteng because the province’s ANC leadership was reportedly considering choosing a white person as premier. Whites, they said, did not treat blacks as equals: they still saw them as useless and still discriminated against them. All the callers supported their claims with stories about racial attitudes at their workplaces. Every one was a professional or business person.

Gauteng’s election results show that they were not an isolated few — many others feel the same way. While this sense of grievance will not decide elections because there are not enough professionals, business people and white-collar workers to elect a government, it does point to a reality that could help to shape the economy’s future. Until we sort out our racial barriers, entry into business and the professions does not make black people more moderate: it only makes them angrier because they feel that the promise that their advancement offers is denied or limited by racial biases and pecking orders that persist. The politicians did not invent this reality — it is a symptom of deep divides in our society.

The trust deficit that limits our economic progress cannot be dismissed as a creation of politicians’ ignorance: it is a sign that our past and the attitudes that made it possible are still too much with us. And so, as business cannot grow sustainably without a more productive relationship with the government, building trust across racial barriers has become a core priority for business strategy.

By Steven Friedman

Source: Business Day

Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.