Giraffe in city street [News]The Executive Secretary of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) has recently resigned.  This has prompted a rare exchange in the South African media on the role of social dialogue and NEDLAC specifically.  The focus of the debate has unsurprisingly been on labour relations and the breakdown of dialogue in areas such as mining.  There is no doubt a need to consider the ongoing relevance of NEDLAC in this context.  NEDLAC does however go far beyond labour markets in terms of its mandate and operations.

I would like to reflect on the role of NEDLAC with regards to South Africa’s trade policy.  In my experience the Trade and Industry Chamber (TIC) has been one of the stronger structures of NEDLAC.  The Department of Trade and Industry (the dti) has to its credit actively engaged with the TIC on a wide range of policy and legislative matters.  Senior officials regularly attend meetings and seem to take NEDLAC seriously.  The Labour and Business constituencies have also tended to have capable convenors and representatives in TIC and its subsidiary bodies such as TESELICO which specifically deals with trade matters.

NEDLAC provides one of the most structured and stable forms of public-private dialogue on trade policy matters that exists in Africa and beyond.  It has significant potential to act as a tool to improve transparency and engagement on important issues such as the World Trade Organisation, regional integration and bilateral trade negotiations.

The challenge, as is often the case, is one of implementation so as to maximise the potential of NEDLAC.  I agree to a certain extent with the Executive Director of NEDLAC, Mr Alistair Smith, that the Secretariat faces resource deficiencies that hamper the work of the organisation.  This is not only about money but about ensuring that there are the right skills in the Secretariat team.  To move beyond simply being a post box between constituencies, the NEDLAC Secretariat needs staff with good substantive understanding of the issues on its agenda, including trade.

Resourcing is but only one part of the challenge however and is perhaps relatively easy to address.  To become a more effective contributor to the evolution of South African’s trade policy, NEDLAC needs to look at the way in which its agenda is constructed and the level of participation from the different constituencies.  On the agenda, much time is often devoted in NEDLAC meetings to procedural matters like the approval of minutes and scheduling of meetings.  This limits the time for engagement on substantive matters and also curbs the enthusiasm of some delegates to participate especially if they are unfamiliar with NEDLAC systems.  Administrative or procedural concerns could usefully be “taken off-line” and dealt with by the designated representatives of each constituency.  This would be more efficient and also help in addressing the question of participation.

The business constituency in particular needs to rethink the way it participates in NEDLAC on trade matters.  There is, for example, no consistent representation of export councils and therefore little participation of these bodies that were set up to take advantage of the benefits provided by trade policy and trade agreements.  Individual firms are rarely given an opportunity to comment on NEDLAC matters or participate in debates as the business organisations act as gatekeepers in this regard.

I am not suggesting a free for all at every NEDLAC meeting but some creative thinking about how to encourage greater participation of traders and investors in the debate.  There is significant expertise on trade policy in South Africa that sits outside of the organised structures that make up the NEDLAC constituencies.  There should be ways to better involve a wider range of voices.

South Africa is facing a particularly challenging environment globally in which to make and adapt trade policy.  There are the stalled WTO negotiations, shifts likely as a result of regional negotiations in Europe and the Asia-Pacific, and the need to refocus on integration in our own region.  All these issues call for well-thought through and sometimes creative responses as identified in South Africa’s Trade Policy Strategic Framework.  NEDLAC has a role to play in this regard but first requires a renewed commitment from social partners.

Catherine Grant Makokera participated in NEDLAC processes in the past as a representative of organised business and continues to support efforts towards strengthening private sector participation in regional and trade policy debates.