George Sebulela. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA/FINANCIAL MAIL
George Sebulela. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA/FINANCIAL MAIL

After more than 20 years of interaction at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), relations between the government, business and labour have become even more complicated than they were at the outset, when the corporatism experiment was initiated.

Rather than a consolidation of interests and a maturity through institutionalised norms and practices, what we have is an ever greater splintering of interests as the constituencies internally diverge in the fraught political environment.

The perpetual conflict between Business Unity SA (Busa) and the Black Business Council (BBC) is a symptom of this divergence. Unable to accommodate it any longer, Busa — which is the official Nedlac convener and representative — recently gave BBC its marching orders, saying it could no longer accommodate it under the Busa banner. This means the BBC loses its seat at the Nedlac table.

The divergence is not surprising. While the BBC does have an array of big corporate members who are also members of Busa, most are members out of solidarity and support for black business. Their interests are much more closely aligned with Busa and even Business Leadership SA.

Many black professional organisations are also members of the BBC, as are aspirant, emerging black business people seeking opportunities to compete against established business. The interests of these two groups are more closely aligned: reform of state procurement rules to allow for greater black participation and lobbying for transformation of the professions. This includes lobbying the government for a greater share of the professional services it procures.

These specific interests, complains the BBC, have not found sufficient voice as expressed through Busa, which represents the broad swath of business from sectoral industry organisations to chambers of commerce and corporates. This is all the more reason why the BBC should approach Nedlac in its own right and secure its own representation.

The BBC is being strangely coy about this. Although there is a resolution by its national council that the BBC should not be subservient to Busa, it hasn’t yet approached Nedlac with a request. At its last interaction with Nedlac, the BBC and Busa were told "to find each other", says BBC secretary-general George Sebulela. The next step is to meet Busa again, presumably in the hope that it will change its position.

Apart from this being unlikely — it’s not rational nor fair that Busa should be obliged to tailor its negotiating positions on the specific demands of the BBC — it would be so much more transparent and productive if the BBC was able to clearly express its own voice at Nedlac. This is the best way to go.

As for established business, which it is simply wrong to call "white business" as the BBC does, there have been other problems to deal with. Organised business has come to realise the very limited effect that it has on the administration of Jacob Zuma. Despite the CEO Initiative, which mobilised a record number of business leaders behind a programme to save SA from a ratings downgrade, Zuma went ahead and fired finance minister Pravin Gordhan, in flagrant disregard of their efforts.

While organised business has always, in the past, assumed that interacting with the ANC government constructively would result in the best outcome, that assumption no longer holds true. Zuma’s actions were a clear indication that while he is happy to talk, their concerns count for little in his eyes. This means that, while formal channels with the government should also remain open, business is going to have to form broader alliances with the rest of society and be more active in the political arena if it is to persuade the country at large that it is part of the solution for a post-Zuma SA.

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