SOUTH Africa could be losing ground on social cohesion and national economic prosperity because of poor relations between government leaders and big business.
It would make a big difference if our political leaders interacted more regularly with business leaders to find common ground on job creation, labour market efficiencies, social development and improving global competitiveness.
Sadly, unity of purpose and the drive to work collaboratively between the two powerful actors is absent. Yet this is what we need to make socioeconomic progress.
Instead, the relationship between the government and business is marked by mistrust and tension.
Former president Thabo Mbeki set up the Big Business Working Group, which included captains of industry, but dissenting views expressed publicly were not tolerated.
One of the ugliest manifestations of the animosity between the government and business was Mbeki's attack on Tony Trahar for alluding to South Africa's political risk. This animosity reached a crescendo recently, with various ANC leaders and government technocrats publicly denouncing individual business leaders for daring to question the country's leadership.
Reuel Khoza of Nedbank and Michael Spicer of Business Leadership SA were among the casualties.
For their part, leaders of corporate South Africa have shown little enthusiasm for taking proactive action to offer a meaningful contribution towards socioeconomic development without being forced by policy and legislative instruments.
Blinded by their obsession with the bottom line, business leaders are often inward-looking and have no sense of developmental responsibility apart from their narrow corporate social investment projects for brand projection, and are generally disconnected from politics and society.
Tensions between the government and business leadership leave unexplored critical social capital that the two can co-generate to advance South Africa's social and economic development. Regular dialogue between the two can facilitate solutions to the country's socioeconomic challenges and help position South Africa well in a changing global environment.
There are various reasons why relations between government and business leaders are at a low point. The first is that the ruling party resents the fact that big business kowtowed to the apartheid government and failed to challenge the system. The ANC still views big business as either a remnant of apartheid or of Anglo-Saxon imperialism.
Second, there are very weak social networks between our political elites and business elites. Unlike elites in culturally homogenous societies, where political and business leaders may have attended the same schools or socialised in the same private clubs, South Africa's predominantly black political elites and predominantly white business elites lived parallel existences with different experiences.
Third, the governing party is generally intolerant of a section of society that has economic power and poses a potential political threat. Keeping business out of political issues is, in a sense, meant to emasculate it.
This explains why the ANC has chosen to create a quasi-business association in the form of the Progressive Business Forum, to keep business groups on a tight political leash.
None of these obstacles is insurmountable.
The ANC will need to get used to the fact it has no monopoly on wisdom in tackling South Africa's challenges.
Business, too, will need to take a long-term view of the country's direction, understand that criticism is a halfway house, and be prepared to be more proactive in reaching out to the government and offering working solutions to our challenges.
Qobo teaches politics at the University of Pretoria and is a member of the Midrand Group.