Sipho Pityana. Picture: Freddy Mavunda
Sipho Pityana. Picture: Freddy Mavunda

Business Unity SA (Busa) has dropped the pleasantries and bluntly told the government to get its act together. This is an extract from an interview with Busa president Sipho Pityana. We asked, are we already over the cliff?

I don’t think we’re there yet but we’re moving at a disturbing pace … One of the things that worries me is this idea of assuring public servants and employees in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that there will not be retrenchments. The reality of the matter is that the public service is bloated, SOEs are in trouble and when they get rationalised, either by our government or by the International Monetary Fund, one of the things that is going to happen is a loss of jobs. However, we can still do certain things to move away from that direction.

Is part of the problem the ANC’s obligations to its tripartite alliance partners?

One of the difficulties of course is that the trade union movement is divided and there’s positioning among the unionists. Trade unions generally understand when negative developments are going to impact jobs and their ability to demand higher wages; you might be surprised to hear me say this, but they prefer to have a solid counterpart on the other side who will tell it like it is.

Then they can negotiate the best deal on behalf of their members in the circumstances. Any trade unionist’s responsibility is to protect jobs, and there’s no trade unionist who is going to run to you and say: "You need to cut jobs." That is the responsibility of the government as an employer to take those decisions. I don’t think that this is an issue about trade unions, this is an issue about a government that sets out to run this country effectively, taking decisions that it has to take and engaging with social partners responsibly. But you can’t run a government by collective bargaining.

I don’t think that the government should exploit divisions in the unions and embark on a Thatcherite approach by decimating unions, because you need a partner on the other side.

National Health Insurance (NHI) is becoming a big, polarising issue. How does Busa view the policy?

There’s a big debate in Busa about NHI. In part, there’s concern that there’s a bit of a backlash against private sector providers. And our own employees feel that this is an insurance that doesn’t quite cover them.

On the other hand, there’s also an embrace of the principles of universal health care because of solidarity and so on. But there’s a serious crisis of confidence in the government. The big part of the fear here is that you will actually collapse the private health-care system in the face of a public health-care system that is in paralysis anyway. So that’s the dynamic which makes it difficult to have a sober conversation around this. Emotions are running very high.

The rebuttal from the government is that your own employees are not getting much joy in your private health-care system, but of course the reason they are hanging onto it is that they fear that what is not good enough in the private health system will be worse in the hands of the state. So the biggest problem with this NHI debate is that it’s a concern about the government’s capacity to execute.

They have committed to having an open discussion with business on this.

In most countries with a universal health-care system, public and private health-care systems sit side by side — there is no animosity between the two, and of course that’s what we hope this will get to.

By the way, one of the key attractions for people … [about] SA is the social infrastructure that we’re able to provide, and health is one of those.

So from a business point of view we’d be keen to make sure that is not impacted negatively.

NHI is yet another aspect of a government that likes to indulge in big promises. Do you think has SA begun a slide into populism?

Difficult economic conditions are fertile ground for populism because people are looking for simplistic answers and solutions to problems. And then you have racialisation of politics and its close cousin, ethnicisation, and before you know what’s happening, society is a thoroughly fractious place and it becomes difficult to come back from that. So it is important for political leaders to act in a responsible way and hold society together.

Do you think our political leaders feel they can’t let that happen?

I don’t always feel that they do or that there is sufficient courageous leadership to say: "Let’s tell people what they’re in for." That is about trusting the intelligence of citizens. If you tell them the truth, they will believe in you and walk the difficult journey with you.