Men queue at a food distribution point in Johannesburg's CBD,on May 4 2020. Picture: AFP/Marco Longari
Men queue at a food distribution point in Johannesburg's CBD,on May 4 2020. Picture: AFP/Marco Longari

In the Business Beyond Covid series, CEOs and other business leaders and experts in their sectors look to the future after Covid-19. What effect has the pandemic and resulting lockdown had on their industries and the SA economy as a whole? Which parts will bounce back first and which will never be the same again? Most importantly, they try to answer the question: where to from here?

Thirty years ago, at the historic conference of the Consultative Business Movement, Nelson Mandela reflected on the need for business — working in partnership with other players in society — to help bridge the enormous gulfs and mistrust that separate us in SA.

This mistrust, he said, “emanates from the fact that on the one side of the street are the haves, and on the other the have-nots”. These words ring true today as we find ourselves in the midst of the upheaval the Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak.

SA has come a long way in that time, by several important measures. However, the scale of inequality and social division in our society, highlighted again by the pandemic, cannot be underestimated. While our challenges may seem intractable there are green shoots to be hopeful about. In a short period SA business, civil society and government have come together in a manner that has not been seen in years.

In just four months the Solidarity Fund has raised close to R3bn in pledges from 1,800 companies and nearly 300,000 individual donors. Through this effort, we — as individuals, business, labour, civil society and government — have come together to combat the spread of the virus and support those whose lives have been disrupted and those left vulnerable by it.

There are countless other examples: from small factory owners who have turned their operations into personal protective equipment manufacturing facilities to the spaza shop owner who has donated food and household items to families in need. The cynics among us might wonder whether we can sustain this momentum beyond Covid-19, but I am confident we can.

For this to happen, however, we need to have an honest conversation about what it will take, and how business, working with the government, labour and civil society, needs to reimagine the role it can play.

Our reality is far worse than we imagine. The National Income Dynamics Study’s Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Nids-Cram), released recently, provides insightful data on the scale of economic and social devastation Covid-19 has wrought.

The Nids-Cram researchers found that 3-million fewer people were employed in April compared to February, and that the jobs lost were particularly concentrated among those who are already disadvantaged in the labour market — such as women, manual workers and those at the bottom half of our country’s income distribution.

While some might argue that these findings are not particularly surprising given our economic challenges over the past decade, we cannot be oblivious to the fact that we are in far greater trouble than we were a few months ago. We need a renewed resolve to do things differently if we are going to navigate our way out of this crisis and emerge stronger. I cannot think of a more powerful way of doing this than by building stronger ties between business, labour, civil society and government.

Our recovery must be premised on collaborative partnerships

One of the enduring criticisms levelled against the business, labour and government relationship is that we lack a common vision. While we agree on the urgent need to foster inclusive economic growth we don’t seem to agree on how to do it. Competing views breed mistrust, eventually leading to a dysfunctional log-jam where we cannot seem to move past our differences.

The crisis we’re facing has, however, flipped this script. In less than four months we have been able to make huge advances through our collective efforts, based on the principles of compromise and the mutual recognition of our commitment to SA’s progress — whoever we might be, or whatever sector of society we might represent.

SA is, in many ways, a nation built on consensus. Our historic transition to today’s constitutional democracy was secured through a difficult and tiring process of building consensus. We’ve done it once, and we can do it again. And our recovery will only be successful if it is premised on collaborative partnerships between business, government and labour.

We can start by, firstly, deepening the consensus that we’ve built through this crisis; secondly, rallying around our immediate opportunities; and lastly, having the courage to make the necessary compromises as a collective.

Consensus is not necessarily “perfect agreement”. What we should strive for is to build and deepen our consensus and build a social compact that puts the people of SA front and centre.

In doing this we can learn from the Codesa negotiation process in the turbulent 1990s, when the negotiators adopted the principle of “sufficient consensus”. This worked because they recognised that while they would never achieve perfect consensus on the demands presented by both sides, they had to make strategic concessions and focus on the bigger prize. Their approach was to focus on the opportunities before them, and not those that divided them.

The preamble of our constitution speaks about “improving the quality of life of all citizens and freeing the potential of each person”. To achieve this we need to do everything we can to set our differences aside. Right now we have several opportunities that could unlock inclusive economic growth and drive greater social cohesion that we can all rally behind. This should be our singular obsession as South Africans.

In its proposed strategy for the recovery of SA’s economy, Business for SA (B4SA) has identified 12 key projects and initiatives that can be launched almost immediately — and some over time — across 10 high-impact sectors of our economy, such as mining, agriculture and energy. If we focus on these immediate opportunities we could create about 1.5-million jobs, according to B4SA’s analysis, and substantially increase tax revenues. Most notable about these projects is that many do not require drastic changes to government policy to be implemented. We need only our collective will and efforts to “grow the pie”, and do so significantly.

Another helpful framework we can all rally behind is the UN’s 2030 sustainable development goals (SDGs), which align well with SA’s 2030 National Development Plan. Through this we have 17 goals that have already been defined and accepted broadly by stakeholders.

Our path to recovery won’t be easy. There are several compromises that each of us, in our own sphere, will have to make in support of our nation’s recovery.

Society is demanding more from business at a time when resources are scarce, but we must continue to act in the interests of the common good. The government has an opportunity to look at our policy regime with fresh eyes, to stimulate growth and bring much-needed investment into the country. The good news is that these discussions have begun, and while it may take time the progress is encouraging.

Labour and civil society movements have an important role to play too. Our communities across the country are built on networks of solidarity and activism, enabled by organised labour, faith-based organisations, NGOs and community groupings. Their voices and efforts in agitating for social justice and transformation cannot go unheard as we chart our path to recovery.

This is our opportunity for a great reset. The 60-million people of this great nation all have hopes for a better tomorrow — hopes that we can help to fulfill by working together. Despite the devastation wrought by the virus and our national challenges, we owe it to ourselves to seize this moment and start working towards the great reset our nation deserves, without delay.

• Fakude chairs Anglo American’s management board in SA.

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