EDITORIAL: Don’t underestimate the value of Mantashe’s love-in with mining industry
Getting all the actors together and restoring trust is a prelude to the structural changes we need
Of all the economic problems that SA has, from unemployment to the crisis at state-owned enterprises, one important element gets overlooked.
That’s the basic lack of trust between the social partners, which at times makes that term sound redundant. This should not come as a surprise to anyone with even a basic understanding of SA’s history and the legacy of poverty and inequality.
The message that we are somehow “all in this together” is a hard sell when “all” includes dollar billionaires, workers on poverty wages and an army of the unemployed. But somehow that gulf has to be breached if the country is going to move forward.
To say that spirit was lost in the disastrous Zuma years would be an understatement.
It’s important to note as well that it wasn’t always like this. The early days of democracy were characterised by a significant amount of goodwill, which was embodied in the formation of the National Economic Development and Labour Council, where the government, business, labour and community organisations were supposed to get together and find solutions to the country’s social ills.
To say that spirit was lost in the disastrous Zuma years would be an understatement. This loss was most strongly manifested in the vilification of opponents of corruption and abuse of state resources as agents of “white monopoly capital”. That this particular term was the invention of a British PR company is a subject for another day.
The irony, of course, is that until very late in the day, when Business Leadership SA got more vocal, business was mostly a silent observer, perhaps anticipating the backlash from those who were stealing and using redress of past injustices as a cover for their bad deeds.
There are too many examples to list, but it would not be far-fetched to say Mosebenzi Zwane, former president Jacob Zuma’s mineral resources minister, was one of the most potent symbols of this dysfunctional relationship, culminating in a boycott of his speech at the Joburg Indaba gala dinner in 2017 by the Chamber of Mines, since renamed the Minerals Council of SA.
That was after he had unilaterally gazetted a highly flawed Mining Charter, which the chamber said would destroy the industry. The markets agreed and R51bn was wiped off the value of JSE-listed mining companies in one day. The chamber’s CEO, Roger Baxter, was unusually outspoken, noting that Zwane had, in a probable reference to the Guptas, been sent to the ministry to “apparently force the sale of a mine to a well-known family that has systematically robbed SA of funds”.
Baxter’s comments this week about Zwane’s successor, Gwede Mantashe, could not be more different. He went so far as to say the economy would fly if the rest of the cabinet had shown similar levels of “passion and enthusiasm”.
This might well be an indication by comparison of how bad things got when Zwane was doing Zuma’s bidding. One mining executive at this week’s indaba described that period as “hell”.
Even if we set aside debates about what’s in the latest charter and whether it will achieve the twin aims of redress and safeguarding the future of the industry, and therefore jobs, the rapprochement between the ministry and business is important in and of itself.
While it’s easy to dismiss the summits on jobs and investments as mere talking shops, that misses the point. It’s often said that South Africans are good at talking, when action is needed now. When it comes to government policy, that is largely true. There are many obvious steps that the government can take to improve the competitiveness of the economy, such as simply scrapping illogical visa regulations that discourage tourism or forcing through changes that deal with the scandal of exorbitant data prices, which are discouraging innovation and entrepreneurship.
But a lot of the more structural changes required will take time and necessitate some more pain before the benefits are felt. So getting all the different actors together and restoring the spirit of co-operation is a necessary start of that process. Without restoring that trust, it’ll be impossible to convince workers to, for example, accept wage restraint and even job cuts today in the belief that they will lead to investment and even more work in the future.