UP and International Labour Organization report explores role of business in times of transition and crisis

Posted on March 17, 2021

The University of Pretoria (UP) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) have launched a report that looks at the role that business and the private sector played during South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy.

Titled Business in the Time of Transition (BiTSA), the project began in 2019 when the ILO and UP’s Centre for Mediation in Africa in the Department of Political Sciences embarked on a project to capture this story. 

The project has now culminated in a report as well as an accompanying website containing various multimedia resources that explore who business was at that time, the role business played in the multiparty negotiations, the lessons that can be drawn from these events and what pieces of this knowledge can be used now as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Interviewees for the report included Professor Mthunzi Mdwaba, Roelf Meyer, Cas Coovadia and Tanya Cohen, to name a few.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the launch of the report took place virtually, with broadcaster Iman Rappetti as host. The event was made up of two panels, one to discuss ‘How Business has responded to the national COVID-19 crisis’ and the other to discuss ‘Lessons from the past – how Business can contribute to transformation and the new moral economy’.

Acting Director of the Centre for Mediation in Africa at UP Dr Cori Wielenga said part of the importance of this project is taking a look at the past and seeing what lessons can be learnt.

“We were interested in seeing what we can gain from looking at our past and seeing how we can apply that to today. I think one of the obvious lessons is the incredible momentum that was achieved during the 1980s and that it took time; it didn’t come easily. It was a struggle between different actors and parties who were part of this spectrum. The momentum was achieved, the solidarity was achieved. People were able to achieve reachable and manageable goals,” Dr Wielenga said.

Understanding the relevance and importance of the social compact

She added that lessons can also be found in what wasn’t achieved.

“What we discuss in our project is economic transformation. The political transformation happened but the economic transformation hasn’t happened enough. We’re seeing the consequences of that today, during the COVID-19 pandemic; that those inequalities have not been addressed, and there hasn’t been enough change in business,” she said.

Project coordinator for the Centre for Mediation in Africa Quraysha Sooliman said crises will always be present in the country and the world, which is why it’s important to understand the links between democracy, the role and responsibility of social partners and the relevance of the social compact.

“Embedded in this notion of the social compact is this strong understanding or desire for societal trust. When there is societal trust it builds a better state, it builds a better society and, of course, we have more functionality. All of this is then linked to the role of the state. So when you have these kinds of questions that come up, you get questions of accountability, of ethical leadership and governance. So this project is very important for a time like now, in South Africa. These questions are currently at play. So it’s [the report] shinning the spotlight on many things,” Sooliman said.

Deborah-France Massin, Director ILO Bureau for Employers' Activities, said the ILO, as an organisation that works through peer-pressure and shining the spotlight on issues, had been involved in doing so with apartheid as well.

“Taking it forward towards today, what’s been interesting is looking at the report and seeing some of the themes that have come out of it. It’s been quite fashionable over the last few years to speak of social dialogue and say it’s a very 20th century European construct. Its moment has passed. And I think one of the very few positives from the last 12 months is that this proposition has been laid to rest. What we’ve seen globally is the renewed vigour of social dialogue and partnership between employers and unions responding to a major societal crisis,” she said.

To watch the launch event, visit the ILO Conversations YouTube page

Visit the BITSA page to learn more about the Business in Times of Crisis and Transition project and to access the report.

- Author Masego Panyane

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