Rapport forged in corona response

29 March 2020 - 00:05 By CHRIS BARRON

Martin Kingston, the vice-president of Business Unity SA (Busa), says the relationship between business and the government in dealing with the coronavirus has been "refreshingly constructive".Although business has been having "a much more constructive, co-operative and collaborative" relationship with the government in the past two years, it has changed fundamentally since the crisis began, he says."It's not even a step change, it's much more fundamental than that."He says a "different type of dialogue" is emerging, which needs to be built on."This doesn't mean there shouldn't be differences in ideology, opinion and thought, but I think the trust levels will have been radically increased as a consequence of this experience."A new spirit of solidarity between business, the government, opposition parties and the ANC is essential if the country is to minimise the "potentially catastrophic ramifications" of Covid-19, he says."The only way we can do that is if we work together in a manner that is very different than before."Kingston says he believes the economic impact of the crisis will force SA to reassess its priorities as a country "quite starkly".Bonds that are being formed between business and the government must endure."We're seeing a level of alignment and solidarity which is unprecedented since 1994."Not that there aren't stresses and strains, but the higher goal is absolutely at the forefront of everybody's mind."No 1 priority is how do we minimise the impact on the health of our citizenry with a state that is fundamentally under-capacitated? It was under-capacitated before, let alone now. We have to reinforce its capacity in any shape, size or form we can."Second, how do we mitigate the economic circumstances, which were looking increasingly bleak before this crisis?"Third, how can we as a society create a different type of engagement between ourselves to address challenges we had historically and that will be visited on us as a consequence of this virus?"We as a society have no choice but to coalesce around these priorities. And if we can't take that experience through to a post-coronavirus environment, it will be a tragedy."The consequences of the "lost years" will "magnify and exacerbate" the impact of Covid-19. "Because we don't have the capacity of the state, we don't have the critical infrastructure, we don't have an alignment of outlook and philosophy."If we'd had a different approach we'd have a more vibrant economy, higher levels of growth, lower levels of unemployment and inequality."That's crying over spilt milk, but it's important that we take on the lessons."Business needs to be more "acutely sensitive" to the pressures on the government. Labour needs to demonstrate "much higher levels of flexibility". And the government needs to appreciate the devastating consequences "if we don't have a competent and capable state"."This experience will hopefully demonstrate that we have to have common cause rather than come with very different, contradictory and sometimes competing agendas."Kingston, who in addition to his role at Busa is the executive chair of Rothschild SA, blames business for its "begrudging, less-than-fulsome embracing" of the need for transformation."It has changed in the last few years, but should have happened 20 years ago, and we'd be reaping the benefits today."If we don't have a society that is more coherent and stable we're not going to have a robust economy that is inclusive. "Our economy today is woefully inadequate in terms of the broader citizenry being properly . included in economic activity, leading to social instability and fracture."To revive the economy both business and the government need to give far more support to the small business sector."Most economies are driven by small and medium-sized businesses and entrepreneurial activity. But not in SA."As a result of inadequate support they're going to take the brunt of the "depression" the country is likely to experience."We need to consider how to play a more proactive and comprehensive role, and that includes government. For as long as I can remember, business has called on government to cut red tape. "President Cyril Ramaphosa has said it's one of his priorities, but it's not happening fast enough."Kingston says business is full of praise for Ramaphosa's "extraordinary" leadership in the crisis.The decision to impose a lockdown, which he announced after "extensive" consultation with business, was "an incredibly difficult decision to take" given the massive ramifications for the economy."We all hope it will create a momentum in terms of decision-making and the speed of decision-making, and unifying people behind him, not just within his cabinet or party but more broadly across society, and will give him the confidence to take decisions with the certain knowledge that he has the support of the country behind him."A continuation of the strong leadership he has shown will be "absolutely necessary" if SA is to have any hope of recovery, says Kingston."We as business certainly hope this will be the hallmark of his approach going forward, because it needs to be. Just as the relationship we're forging at the moment with government needs to continue."Had there been this kind of relationship before, "we'd be in a better place", he says."If this experience allows us to fundamentally change our trajectory in the manner in which we conduct ourselves, the speed with which we take decisions, the way in which we prioritise key aspects of our lives, it will be a very positive outcome from very negative circumstances."He hopes that the contribution the government has allowed business to make in the crisis will be "encouraged and welcomed going forward, and that we will have a higher level of influence and be listened to much more carefully than historically has been the case"."But at the end of the day it is government's responsibility to govern and our role to drive the economy. And we need to have a . frank, honest and transparent dialogue and relationship to enable that to happen."

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day or Financial Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email helpdesk@timeslive.co.za or call 0860 52 52 00.