There is still a strong public perception of a trust deficit between government and business. But, in recent weeks, there seems to have been quiet, almost imperceptible, progress in mending relations between these two crucial social partners.
Government’s charm offensive was on public display in mid-August when President Jacob Zuma hosted a session in Pretoria to update business on the headway being made under government’s Operation Phakisa initiative.
The update itself did not imply massive progress in the initial focus areas of the ocean economy and health infrastructure. In fact, there was not much practical to announce, besides the intention to develop a few fish farms and some small harbours and to press ahead with the roll-out of the so-called ‘Ideal Clinic’.
But the atmosphere was more than genial, with Zuma instructing the many Ministers present to network with the businesspeople who had made the effort that morning to travel to the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House.
The President himself went out of his way to make time for some of his visitors, sitting at one of the small four-seater tables set up in coffee-shop style in a curtained-off area alongside the hall in which the main presentation was made.
Only days earlier in that same venue, government and business had presented a united front following a Presidential Business Working Group meeting. After what was a far longer engagement than usual, former Standard Bank CEO Jacko Maree, representing Business Unity South Africa, and the Black Business Council’s Ndaba Ntsele criticised the “trust deficit” narrative, which Maree described as “not particularly helpful”.
The issue, he argued, was whether discussions between government and business were not only open and frank, but were being conducted in an atmosphere of “good faith”, which was “unquestionably” the case.
Since that time, there have been a few other public displays of unity in both the steel and mining sectors, while there have been numerous other private interactions designed to ensure that the two social partners begin dealing with those constraints to growth and investment within their control. Besides the mining and steel progress, a meeting of minds around South Africa’s controversial new visa rules, which are seen as a genuine impediment to tourism growth, is still expected.
It’s an optimistic view, but perhaps South Africa is on the cusp of a far more constructive relationship between government and business, the absence of which, in recent times, has starved the country of the oxygen needed for far higher levels of growth and more rapid development.