A rare ray of light amid the SA gloom: A meeting on post-apartheid economic growth was refreshingly harmonious, writes John Carlin from Johannesburg

AN ANGLICAN minister who works in Alexandra township, adjoining Johannesburg, where a peace agreement has been brokered after two years of intense political violence, remarked the other day that for every bad thing that happened in South Africa there was something good.

One good thing in a society as historically fractured as any in the world is that negotiation has become the country's biggest growth industry. At present, according to government figures, 278 negotiations forums have been established nationwide, dealing with everything from housing and education to local government and sport. Best known, of course, is the multi- party constitutional council where it was agreed last week to set 27 April next year as the date for South Africa's first democratic elections.

Less well known but, many would argue, as important, is the National Economic Forum (NEF). The NEF is a body representing - at the highest level - organised labour, organised business and government. Its task, defined in the founding document on 29 October last year, is to develop a common national strategy 'geared toward the generation of sustained economic growth, the addressing of distortions in the economy, stability and the addressing of social needs'.

After eight months of discussion within joint committees, not only has what some call 'this unholy alliance' managed to hold together, it has reached a number of substantial agreements based on the shared understanding that a new framework is required to shape the inevitably radical changes under way in the relationship between labour and capital, between the black and white populations.

Funds, for example, have been made available for NEF programmes to develop public- works schemes in the black townships; to establish an unemployment insurance mechanism; to create a national peace corps, a voluntary development scheme for young people with job training and community service as its objectives.

The agreements, seen only as the first steps towards an ambitiously comprehensive social contract, were made public this week at the NEF's first public plenary, an event which brought together a formidable array of captains of industry (the massive Anglo American Corporation, for example, was prominently represented), government ministers and leaders of the ANC- aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Where such encounters at the multi-party constitutional forum have been marked by bickering, spoiling and exasperating procrastination, the NEF meeting was characterised by cheerful common purpose. The plenary chairman was Cosatu's Jayendra Naidoo (not to be confused with the labour movement's general secretary, Jay Naidoo), who had the managing directors of the country's most powerful conglomerates chuckling in the aisles when he addressed them as 'comrades' and urged them to join him in a new revolutionary cry, 'Viva NEF] Viva]'

The difference between these and the constitutional talks, one enthusiastic mining executive said, was that here everybody, working on a sincere basis of mutual respect, saw an interest in finding agreement, whereas there a number of the delegates were staring in the face the prospect of political extinction. Another business leader noted that the NEF plenary had a tremendous symbolic significance, marking the evolution away from the politics of protest and confrontation to a welcome new phenomenon, the politics of constructive engagement.

The president of Cosatu, John Gomomo, won a round of applause when he said that, since the success of the political process in South Africa rested on success in the economy, it was essential that all parties present join forces in an effort to make the NEF work. 'We want to get away from resistance, always resistance, to consolidation,' he pleaded. Mr Naidoo said that the NEF's great merit was that labour, previously on the outside looking in when decisions affecting its members were being taken, was now inside, taking part.

The speeches by the three keynote speakers - Mr Naidoo's namesake; the Finance Minister, Derek Keys; and a business spokesman, Derek Brink - each reflected a desire for compromise. Jay Naidoo, once the 'Communist' devil incarnate in many businessmen's eyes, declared: 'Let us work together on a programme of socio-economic reconstruction that recognises the rights of all partners.'

Mr Keys said the truth was that 'trickle-down effects from growth, even quite high growth, in the formal sector are not enough in themselves to have a material effect on a seriously underdeveloped situation'. Calling for 'a deliberate allocation of resources' to help the needy, he said a programme was required to develop low-cost housing and rural development and to make more opportunities available to the disadvantaged.

Mr Brink, who said that education and worker training should be placed at the top of the national agenda, said that the NEF was in a position to set South Africa on its way as 'one of the emerging economic miracles of the world'. The key, he said, was 'to find a recipe to forge a new economic order . . . which will achieve sufficient sustainable economic growth with increasing efficiency and equity and, in parallel, to find and agree a desirable pattern for redistribution of wealth'.

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