Your esteemed publication carried a column by Mzukisi Qobo under the heading, "Time for undemocratic Nedlac to shut up shop" (July 13).

When the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) first opened its doors, the need for such an institution was clear. The government sought to introduce policies to achieve its democratic, non racial and developmental vision in an environment where labour and capital were deeply divided. Institutionalis ed social dialogue had a critical role to play.

In its first five years, Nedlac constituencies successfully negotiated the labour laws, the Mine Health and Safety Act and the National Small Business Act, among many other pieces of legislation and policy. Seventeen years later, the context for social dialogue has changed. So, too, have perceptions about its role and relevance.

Critics point to issues that have dragged on in negotiations at Nedlac as a sign that it fails to deliver consensus. Nedlac has been dismissed as a "lost cause" by some; others call for it to be closed.

True, Nedlac faces a series of challenges. Dialogue on economic issues can often be adversarial. Add to this robust party politics, which shape relationships outside of the government, and the need for strengthened policy co-ordination and prioritisation within the state. The social partners face challenges in their capacity to engage, their commitment to dialogue and their trust in one another.

Dialogue today takes place against a backdrop of global economic uncertainty with severe consequences for employment and growth domestically. Nedlac also confronts several organisational considerations, inclu-ding the proliferation and increasing complexity of issues and slow progress in deliberations.

We are at a juncture. One path will indeed render Nedlac a "lost cause". We go down this path if we fail to understand why some believe the institution has lost its relevance.

The other fork offers a journey of reinvigoration and organisational strengthening. This road requires us to take stock of where the institution is today, identify opportunities for meaningful engagement and work towards them. We have decided to embark upon this path. This trajectory builds on the positive engagement that takes place at Nedlac on a range of issues. The highly publicised areas of seemingly stalled engagement are a sliver of the day-to-day work that Nedlac constituencies do, often out of the public eye.

Nedlac, as the country's central institution for social dialogue, still has a critical role to play.

Alistair Smith

Nedlac executive director