Fo­cus should be to get econ­omy back on track

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Ernest Mahlaule Ernest Mahlaule is pres­i­dent of the JCCI. Visit www.jcci.co.za for more in­for­ma­tion

SOUTH Africa is at a cross­roads. The coun­try has had the for­tune of tran­si­tion­ing from a pariah state to a bea­con of hope. Its his­tory, how­ever, is very much a part of the present, be­cause there are a myr­iad so­cio-eco­nomic prob­lems that threaten to de­rail the sig­nif­i­cant progress made over the past 23 years.

As much as we like to think of our­selves as an ex­cep­tion, it’s abun­dantly clear that we are not and we might never be, de­pend­ing on what we choose to do.

Some won­der how much col­lec­tive will there is to foster fun­da­men­tal change in South Africa, while en­sur­ing no un­wel­come sur­prises along the way.

The Jo­han­nes­burg Cham­ber of Com­merce and In­dus­try (JCCI), one of the coun­try’s pre-em­i­nent busi­ness asso- cia­tions rep­re­sent­ing in­ter­ests of key sec­tors of the South African econ­omy, ac­knowl­edges and shares the fun­da­men­tal con­cerns of ev­ery­one about the chal­lenges fac­ing our econ­omy.

It is re­ally not a sur­prise that, in 2017, there is a lot of clam­our for mean­ing­ful eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion. Whether this is known as rad­i­cal eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion or by some other catch­phrase, it doesn’t make much dif­fer­ence.

Wher­ever one looks, it is clear that we have been tin­ker­ing on the edges, whether we are talk­ing about de­vel­op­ing small busi­nesses, cre­at­ing jobs, up­skilling the na­tion’s hu­man re­sources, align­ing our ed­u­ca­tional out­puts with the re­al­ity of a glob­alised world or in cre­at­ing bet­ter link­ages be­tween busi­ness, labour, govern­ment and civil so­ci­ety.

By most mea­sures, South Africa is now among the world’s most dan­ger­ously un­equal so­ci­eties. Un­em­ploy­ment has be­come a peren­nial or worse, a struc­tural prob­lem. There are more young peo­ple un­em­ployed than there are stu­dents at in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing.

Most of th­ese is­sues, if not all of them, were set to be ad­dressed by the Na­tional De­vel­op­ment Plan, which was sup­posed to be the na­tional blue­print to get the econ­omy back on a sus­tain­able path.

But the im­per­a­tives of the NDP have been over­shad­owed by a new mantra of rad­i­cal eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion.

Pol­icy dis­con­nec­tion

While this might sound at times like pop­ulist rhetoric, many in the busi­ness com­mu­nity see it as pol­icy dis­junc­ture, the out­comes of which are hard to pre­dict since there is lit­tle in­for­ma­tion or no ref­er­ence to what it might ac­tu­ally en­tail.

Our mem­bers, whose con­tri­bu­tion to the broader econ­omy amounts to bil­lions of rand in in­vest­ments across key sec­tors, want to un­der­stand the essence of what rad­i­cal eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion speaks to in the prac­ti­cal sense.

They are also keen to un­der­stand what is ex­pected of busi­ness with re­gard to mak­ing sure that busi­ness is able to play a mean­ing­ful role in bring­ing about a con­struc­tive and sus­tain­able ap­proach to eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion.

Busi­ness is very much on board with the need to change course so that South Africa builds a more in­clu­sive, re­silient and dy­namic econ­omy that can en­able many of its peo­ple to not live in squalor and poverty. As busi­ness, we are keen to see that the pol­icy di­rec­tion does not cre­ate the same mis­takes that have held back or thwarted mean­ing­ful trans­for­ma­tion of the econ­omy.

It is for this and other rea­sons that there is a very good jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the govern­ment, along with busi­ness, labour and civic so­ci­ety, to put aside all dif­fer­ences em­a­nat­ing from, in­ter alia, per­ceived trust deficit and pol­icy in­sta­bil­ity, and join hands in find­ing last­ing and in­clu­sive so­lu­tions for our coun­try in gen­eral and the econ­omy in par­tic­u­lar.

Part­ner­ships

As a con­tri­bu­tion to­wards all the iso­lated ef­forts cur­rently un­der way, in­clud­ing the pres­i­den­tial chief ex­ec­u­tive round­table and other re­lated ini­tia­tives, the JCCI dur­ing 2016 launched an “In­clu­sive Growth Through Stake­holder Part­ner­ship” process in an at­tempt to broaden the plat­form and en­sure in­clu­siv­ity of all stake­hold­ers – from SMEEs to large en­ti­ties, govern­ment, civil so­ci­ety and or­gan­ised labour. The an­nual sum­mit, which takes place on Au­gust 3, is un­der­pinned by the im­ple­men­ta­tion of an ac­tion plan. The main ob­jec­tive is to pro­vide an open and hon­est en­gage­ment about how to bet­ter ad­vance trans­for­ma­tion and re­verse the cur­rent nega­tive eco­nomic growth tra­jec­tory, which is clearly an is­sue of na­tional com­mon in­ter­est, in a sus­tain­able but yet in­te­grated for­mat, with­out ex­clud­ing any key stake­holder.

Grow­ing an econ­omy is a func­tion of eco­nomic par­tic­i­pa­tion of as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble and not just a few.

The nec­es­sary con­di­tions, how­ever, in­clude the fact that there must be a co­her­ent and con­sis­tent mes­sage about any im­por­tant in­ter­ven­tion such as rad­i­cal eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion in or­der to elim­i­nate un­in­tended con­fu­sion to in­vestors and other stake­hold­ers.

At the prac­ti­cal level, it would also be im­per­a­tive to talk about the struc­tural re­form of our econ­omy, as that will de­politi­cise the is­sue and en­sure that the process of trans­for­ma­tion does not be­come an emo­tive one across all fronts.

The cham­ber is keen to con­tinue pro­vid­ing a plat­form and in­put in any di­a­logue that would help ad­vance changes in our econ­omy and cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment that fos­ters growth and in­ge­nu­ity.

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