Picture: 123RF/ATUL VERMA
Picture: 123RF/ATUL VERMA

During the 1980s, as an ANC and South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) activist in exile in the UK, I joined a huge people’s march for jobs in solidarity with local people who formed the backbone of the anti-apartheid movement. It symbolised a nation united in the common cause of finding find lasting answers to a challenge that was on a smaller scale to the one we now face.

Harnessed correctly, SA’s jobs summit and its defined processes have the same potential. Unlike previous summits, the approach taken has been a bottom-up one. We are engaging the conversation from a micro-perspective. But we must resist focusing only on the numbers on the table — we must also factor in that many of the proposals being made at the summit will catalyse growth and change, sparking a multiplier effect with results beyond what the data suggests.

The jobs summit is cognisant of the full set of economic challenges we are confronted with, but does not pretend to have all the answers — only some. We cannot underestimate the requirement for long-term economic restructuring. This will be the subject of a follow-up process.

The three major ratings agencies that previously characterised SA’s labour environment as unstable and volatile and a credit risk to our country, have commended the national minimum wage and labour relations amendments as an important step in our long-term development. This process saw the the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) constituents coming together in a collective effort to find middle ground for the greater good. It’s a good example for us to emulate here.

I believe business has rightly consolidated its place as a valued, long-term partner and generator of tax and employment. It is in this context that we welcome the action orientation of the jobs summit framework agreement, and the way social partners have agreed to, once again, co-operate for the common good. We are excited about the potential evident in the proposed projects, such as those identified for the agricultural sector, nursing, youth employment, education and early childhood development. 

We need to sustain and deepen these interventions as we move to the medium-term budget policy statement, the investment conference, and beyond.

As we conduct these processes and introspect on what course will carry us through as a collective, the world will be watching. We can choose whether it sees an SA that is full of unrealised potential because of self-inflicted domestic factors; or one that overcomes these daunting challenges to realise the promise enshrined in our constitution and the bill of rights, with an economy that can support our ambition of dignity, equality and true freedom.

The current political environment is conducive to dialogue. Our discourse is no longer dominated nor coloured by scandal

We are fortunate that our institutional framework remains intact. We have a vibrant judiciary and the exemplary custodians of our fiscal and monetary policy in the National Treasury and the South African Reserve Bank, respectively. We have a loud and free press and a vibrant, multi-faceted civil society. In our toolkit we now have an economic stimulus package, and will soon add the outcomes of this jobs summit, to help us conduct our ongoing dialogue about which economic path to take.

What is comforting and encouraging is the return of due process, not only in the policy space but also in the nature of engagements among economic role-players and the social partners at Nedlac. We are not devoting all of our time and resources to protecting our institutions, but are instead able to focus on tangible solutions to undo the damage caused by years of maladministration.

The mistrust that pervaded institutional frameworks has gone. The current political environment is conducive to dialogue. Our discourse is no longer dominated nor coloured by scandal. Substance has returned to public rhetoric as the political noise has died down. The paradigm has shifted from public scandals to collaboration among social partners.

We have come a long way, and while the jobs summit is not the complete answer, it is one of the answers to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s call during the state of the nation address for “thuma mina”. This process is the short-term curtain-raiser, if you will: the stage-setter for what we expect to be long-term and ongoing engagements about how best to grow the economic pie and ensure we address inequalities.

As business, we assure SA of our commitment to the outcomes of the jobs summit, and say: "Thuma thina, thuma mina, Mr President. We want to be there when you start to turn it around. We want to lend a hand in the urgent collective struggle against poverty, unemployment and inequality. Send us, Mr President!"

• Pityana is president of Business Unity SA and business constituency leader at Nedlac. This is an edited version of the address he made to the jobs summit on October 4.