AN economic negotiating forum between organized labor, business, and government could change the face of negotiations in South Africa and provide an economic framework for a political settlement.
At a meeting last week between representatives of the major trade union federations, organized business, and government, three working committees were established to prepare for the first session of a national economic forum.
"It is intended that the forum will lay the ground for the process of economic reconstruction in a way which does not preempt a future government or ties its hands," says Neil Coleman, spokesman for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the largest trade union federation.
"At one level it will be a holding action to prevent government from engaging in unilateral economic restructuring," he says. "At another level it is to address more immediate issues like job creation and retrenchment in the light of rising unemployment."
COSATU, alliance partner of the African National Congress (ANC), has not participated directly in political negotiations at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) but has had a major indirect input through its influence with the ANC.
Since the deadlock at CODESA in mid-May the prospect of an economic forum has become more immediate as negotiators have realized that agreement on a political transition to democracy will have little meaning unless there is a a program for the economic empowerment of black South Africans.
"The right to vote, even when we have won it, will remain something of a shell unless our people are economically empowered," says ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa, formerly a leading trade unionist and head of the powerful mine-workers union.
COSATU, which adopted a radical economic policy to promote a redistribution of resources to deprived blacks at its policy conference in April, is regarded as the most organized power-bloc within the coalition of anti-apartheid forces.
In the past, it has successfully organized national work strikes which have strengthened the ANC's political leverage. Some COSATU officials argue that the federation should have a more direct role in political negotiations.
Others believe that COSATU's long-term influence will be strengthened by concentrating on economic issues.
The business community, concerned about a deepening economic recession and the ANC's continued advocacy of economic and financial sanctions, is eager to explore a social accord between business and labor which would link productivity to profits and create a less antagonistic relationship between employers and employees.
The idea of an economic forum, which has been floating for more than a year, received new impetus with the appointment of former mining executive Derek Keys as minister of finance last month after the unexpected resignation Barend du Plessis in April.
Trade unionists acknowledge that Mr. Keys has adopted a more positive approach than his predecessor. The new minister has actively encouraged the formation of an economic forum and has expressed the hope that COSATU's involvement in planned national protests to break the political deadlock will not delay its formation.
Keys told the Monitor he was hopeful that agreement could ultimately be reached at such a forum on a program which would ensure economic growth.
He said the forum was "extremely important" in addressing the vast gap that had arisen between the employed and growing unemployed sectors as a result of rapidly rising real wages during the past 10 years.
The forum, he added, could also serve to end the "economic civil war" being waged between organized labor, which supports financial sanctions, and the business community, which wants to attract foreign investors.
"This war must come to a stop," he said. "There is no way that we can achieve growth as long as we continue with this civil war in the economic arena."
He said that the forum could promote greater competition on the part of business, stricter government control of the budget, and greater productivity by labor.
"Unless we have a broad consensus between business and labor - with the state involved - we will not achieve an above-average economic performance," he said.
COSATU officials are wary of the term "social accord" as it smacks to militant members as a compromise which could undermine the power of trade unions and work in favor of employers.
During the past year some individual COSATU unions have for the first time entered into wage agreements which link productivity to profits but it is still a controversial issue within the union movement.
Last week's meeting was considered a breakthrough in business circles as it firmly established the involvement of government in a three-way dialogue.