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OPINION: We need to rethink meaning of national interest with so many sectors at war with each other

BUSINESS LIVE / 03 DECEMBER 2018 - 05:04 / YUNUS MOMONIAT

Concepts of the national interest inevitably lead to contestation. Visions of what is good for society are often, in fact, the interests of a particular sector. The concept of national interest is often used when a state is at war, but in SA, where sectors are virtually at war with each other, it seems apposite.

SA is a particularly fraught arena, with unionists opposing the National Development Plan (NDP) and the national minimum wage, groups such as Solidarity and AfriForum contesting affirmative action and BEE, opposition parties contesting government plans for economic renewal, and the governing party at war with itself over state capture.

Business in a country such as SA cannot pursue strategies that staunch the flow of money to the working classes and wider society, says the writer. Picture: ISTOCK

The failure of social dialogue forum the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) to forge an agenda agreed between the government, business and labour is a symptom of this lack of consensus on the way forward. Its failure reflects its constituencies’ failure to take the point of view of the social whole. A sort of transcendence is necessary to determine the national interest.

While the national interest can shift in accordance with circumstances, the current situation makes it plain that we need economic growth: more jobs, especially for the youth; better conditions for small businesses, including informal traders, so they can emerge and survive if not thrive; and an exchange rate that would translate into lower fuel, food and other prices, even if that means exports will be affected.

The disastrous last decade has produced a situation that could well be characterised as an emergency, and the various sectors are failing to wake up to the fact that this requires sacrifices that would allow growth and social stability.

Business has been accused of various transgressions of the national interest: investment strikes, exploitation of workers and excessive pay packages for executives. Even business-friendly centrists such as Business Day columnist Peter Bruce (or is he centre-left in SA’s context?) have charged that businesses often pursue short-term interests for the benefit of shareholders at the expense of the business itself and the economy and workers.

Unions, in turn, have plausibly been accused of ministering to a labour aristocracy, and promoting the interests of public sector workers at the expense of the unemployed and the youth.

Meanwhile, the government, until Cyril Ramaphosa became SA’s president, has been the greatest danger to the nation, with the former president giving a huge chunk of its GDP to a family that captured state apparatuses, plunging the country into an economic crisis from which it will take years to recover. SA’s inflated food and petrol prices mean we are paying for state capture in an immediate and direct way with every purchase we make.

The disastrous last decade has produced a situation that could well be characterised as an emergency, and the various sectors are failing to wake up to the fact that this requires sacrifices that would allow growth and social stability.

With unemployment at more than 27%, crime on the rise and xenophobic sentiment increasing, demagogues mainly from the EFF are exploiting the instability, fanning ethnic hatred and destroying an already eroded nonracial nation-building project.

But other parties are also exploiting fevered crisis conditions, with the DA riding the rise of xenophobia, and the Freedom Front accusing the government of turning a blind eye to Afrikaner victims of crime and castigating land reform.

Meanwhile, members of the EFF such as Mbuyiseni Ndlozi and Godrich Gardee seem too beholden to their leaders to interrogate their words and actions. Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu are falling squarely into the pro-Zupta camp by constituting new enemies now that Zuma has been displaced. Surely they can define a programme that does not depend on the divisiveness that appears to be a bid to distract from criminal activity?

For its part, the DA is manipulating black voters as fodder for the interests of whites in a postapartheid SA. Its xenophobic electoral manifesto is a prime example of this phenomenon. The party’s tie-up with big business fosters a permanent hostility to unions and to the social democratic form of state SA needs.

One does not have to be an EFF supporter to discern that monopolistic big business has indeed held back the growth of a black middle class and channelled profits away from ordinary workers and emerging businesses to achieve superprofits for their executives and shareholders.

Business in a country such as SA cannot pursue strategies that staunch the flow of money to the working classes and wider society. Workers must indeed earn higher wages, if only to resuscitate consumer demand, but more importantly for these classes to have the resources to become skilled, start businesses of their own and grow the economy.

Workers, instead of being given stakes in the companies they work for, see their wages trimmed to a minimum and their benefits forever withheld when they are classified as temporary or contract workers. Businesses are generally seen as anti-union and antiworker, and have not launched a single scheme to alter this situation. They exploit the threat of unemployment to squeeze existing workers.

Banks and financial institutions such as insurance companies, and especially medical scheme administrators, must be forced by consumers to operate in a more equitable manner, rather than exploiting their clients at every turn. Cellphone companies that make huge profits have been impervious to regulators such as the Independent Communications Authority of SA, and continue to make digital communications expensive and inaccessible.

Unions fail to appreciate the role of business. Perhaps they will be less likely to do this if they are represented on company boards, as in Germany. They have an ambiguous relation to business, calling for more investment and jobs but doing much to ensure this doesn’t happen. They appear to be waiting for business to be replaced by a command economy and trot out faux-Marxist slogans unable to acknowledge the realities of a post-Cold War world.

Their worst moves have been to oppose schemes for youth employment, which they see as a threat to their constituency, and defending even workers engaged in illegal activities. At the other end of the spectrum, AfriForum and Solidarity should realise that Donald Trump will not help them reintroduce apartheid. They are stuck here, unless Australia beckons.

There are times, such as in SA now, when party politics must take a back seat to the national interest. Parties should realise that if Ramaphosa is not strengthened and elected in 2019, SA is headed for disaster.

Every sector needs to engage in introspection and an honest interrogation of its objective function thus far, and begin to re-examine commitments to antagonisms we have inherited and exacerbated.

It is time we have a debate on what constitutes the national interest. If even a temporary consensus can be achieved we will have norms to guide us, and against which we can measure the various players that will determine the future of our country.

• Momoniat is a political commentator and researcher and writer at South African History Online.

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LINK : https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/2018-12-03-we-need-to-rethink-meaning-of-national-interest-with-so-many-sectors-at-war-with-each-other/

Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER

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