Business is critical for the social and economic compact we need for a more inclusive and equitable recovery once the pandemic has left our shores. Cas Coovadia, CEO of Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) and co-convenor of Business for South Africa (B4SA), explains how Covid-19 led to the formation of B4SA and what the aims of this unique collective are.
What led to the formation of B4SA and which business bodies and organisations are involved?
When the pandemic hit South Africa, BUSA was concerned about the impact it would have on the economy. We decided to create a platform to enable participation from broader business, with the aim of intervening on behalf of business while supporting government’s initiatives to manage the impact of the pandemic. We approached the Black Business Council (BBC) and they agreed to join us. B4SA is not an association as such and has no legal standing. Once the need for it falls away, it will cease to exist. However, it currently functions as a platform from which to mobilise the capabilities of business to respond to the crisis. We have mobilised around 250 professionals from various sectors, all of whom work on a pro bono basis.
What are some of B4SA’s achievements thus far?
We have worked on several initiatives with our social partners and the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC). During the various stages of lockdown, we shared the real experiences of business with government, and assisted those companies that had difficulty complying with some of the regulations. We worked on how to make taxi transport safer, conducting analyses and identifying potential problems, and investigated how this could be funded. We helped to distribute Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) and other grant monies allocated by the state, which took some time due to bureaucracy – we mobilised business resources, for example bringing banking infrastructure into play.
As part of the Covid-19 Rapid Response Team, which is made up of representatives from government, labour, and community groups, we continue to provide input into how resources are used. We have developed a platform to vet personal protective equipment (PPE) suppliers and ensure they meet procurement requirements. We are currently working on an electronic platform, with Sasol, the Boston Consulting Group and others, in consultation with the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, to provide 24-hour real-time assistance to technical vocational and education training colleges, helping with online skills training in various trades, and those skills needed to drive the new economy forward. We also provided Return to Work resources for the informal sector to allow it to resume trading.
You are advocating for economic restructuring in the wake of the pandemic – can you tell us more about your 12-point plan?
Covid-19 has made starker both the inequalities in society, and the capacity and skills constraints within government. We undertook ‘deep dives’ into 52 sectors of the economy and prioritised 12 policy focus areas on the strength of their contribution to gross domestic product (GDP), among them increased financial inclusion, e-learning and digital health platforms, water infrastructure, a secure and affordable electricity supply, and fast-tracking the green economy. Our 12-point plan is clear on the need for a workable social and economic compact since no one stakeholder can go it alone. We want to ensure that small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) are top of mind as our sectoral work develops. One of our working groups is looking into how we can advocate for SMMEs to be paid within 30 days. We are institutionalising the work we have done as B4SA into BUSA and BBC. As an example, the Minerals Council South Africa will take our mining proposals to government.
Together with Proudly South Africa, we are looking at how to develop local manufacturing in the long term – there are now 34 companies in the country manufacturing PPE. We are also looking seriously at the fiscal issue. Recovery will be difficult as we are a sub-investment-grade country competing with other emerging markets. We estimate that, in the next three or four years, we will need R3.4 trillion to recover. President Cyril Ramaphosa has approved the formation of a small economic recovery team and, together with government, labour and community groups, we will be extracting areas of commonality and having hard discussions about how to arrive at a strategy that is best for the country.
We have some non-negotiables, however. We must create an environment that will attract both local and global investment – one that is both inclusive and equitable. We need to ensure ease of doing business, for both new and existing businesses, and also control government expenditure. Business is prepared to mobilise skills and resources, and ask the president to stand above the political fray and say that the country needs these initiatives, irrespective of ideology.
Do you have any recommendations for how corporate social investment (CSI) can contribute to your goals?
Companies need to relook their CSI strategies within the context of the pandemic – CSI needs to be redirected towards those areas of the economy and society that are likely to demonstrate the most severe need. The choices we make now will determine whether our country will become a failed state or take the long, hard road to recovery. If there is ever a need to work together, now is the time.