WE CAN have real negotiation on our economic future. Or we can have indabas. At present, indabas are in fashion. In a short time, we have seen the local government summit, the mining indaba and the affordable housing indaba. The labour relations indaba is due next month.

The reason is not hard to find: we need to change social and economic direction and the only way we can do this is by negotiation between the key interests. The indabas are supposed to provide a platform for government, business and others whose decisions affect our social and economic future to agree on a way forward.

The diagnosis that produced the indaba season is accurate — but, in most cases, the supposed cure prolongs the problem.

Real economic negotiation is a necessity. When democracy arrived, our major actors ducked a key task — how to tackle the poverty and inequality our past had created without damaging the ability to create wealth. There is only way to do this — through negotiation. "Answers" that ignore poverty will be resisted and will fail. Those that ignore the need to retain capital will ensure continued poverty. And so we are doomed to bargain if we want to grow. Because we did not negotiate the compromises two decades ago, we need to do this now.

Those in business and the media who sneer at negotiation because they claim we cannot grow unless we apply economically correct policies might reflect on the fact that in the mid-1990s the government and unions signed an agreement to negotiate privatisation. The government tore up the agreement, presumably because it was advised that meeting labour halfway would be economically impure. The result was two decades of successful resistance to privatisation. Either we change by compromising or we do not change at all.

The present round of indabas is unlikely to produce a different result. We need negotiation because we are a divided society. Business, the government and labour have spent the past few years yelling at each other because they do not agree on what the problem is, let alone on how it could be solved.

But that does not mean that indabas will do the trick. We know they won’t from experience. The only new thing about indabas is the name the government now gives them. Previous governments called them summits. We have had summits on jobs, on growth and development, and other issues. The key actors at the conference venues adopted declarations on the need to work together, promised to carry on talking and then behaved as if nothing had changed. The declarations seem to have been forgotten the moment delegates left the venue.

The present round of indabas is unlikely to produce a different result. We need negotiation because we are a divided society. Business, the government and labour have spent the past few years yelling at each other because they do not agree on what the problem is, let alone on how it could be solved. Deep divisions cannot be bridged in a couple of days — if they could be, they would not be deep.

Nor can indabas produce real negotiation. Some of us seem to see negotiation as a love-fest at which parties tell each other how much they have in common. But we need negotiation because they don’t really have much in common and so bargaining is about power — the parties bargain because they know they have to live with each other and want to ensure that they do this on terms that give them the best deal possible. And so bargains are likely to stick only if they emerge out of a process in which the parties have tested their power and discovered what they can keep and what they must give. Indabas provide no space for this to happen.

This is why the only recent event that may achieve results is the local government summit. Its goal was not to get a range of actors with competing interests to compromise — it was meant to sell a programme to sections of one actor, the government. Even so, much work will be needed to make what was discussed at the summit a reality. To expect an indaba at which conflicting parties are supposed to make deals to achieve very much is a fantasy.

And so there is a great irony to the indabas — only if they claim to achieve little is there a chance they may be fruitful. There may be a case for them as a way of kick-starting a process: they could draw attention to an issue and make the idea of negotiating a solution attractive. But in that case, all they can do is to persuade parties to agree to bargain. The more they claim to have reached concrete agreements, the more likely it is that these will quickly fall apart. But indabas rarely stop at agreements to negotiate. Once they are convened, they are expected to produce results and it seems lame to say simply that the parties agreed to talk, even if this is the only way to move the country forward.

If we are to move on to a more productive social and economic path, we will need years of bargaining in which agreements on small issues build momentum for bigger compromises. Indabas are of use only if they make this happen. In negotiation as in much else, there are no substitutes for the real thing.

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