Cosatu. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

WHERE was labour when business was lobbying the government to try to find solutions to the economic crisis SA finds itself in? This question has been bothering me for the past three weeks.

Trade unions can’t just sit back, wait for structures aimed at reviving the economy to be built and then complain that they were not consulted. They are not there to simply critique what has been produced. Labour is expected to roll up its sleeves and make a contribution.

It is a key stakeholder in the economy and has a major role to play.

If the country fails to avert a sovereign credit rating downgrade to "junk" status, workers will feel the pain as much as business and the government, possibly more. There could be massive job losses.

When President Jacob Zuma exercised his prerogative to reshuffle his Cabinet at the end of last year and fired then finance minister Nhanhla Nene, only to temporarily replace him with the unknown Des van Rooyen, that inexplicable choice caused a major outcry that not only led to the financial markets shedding hundreds of billions of rand but also led to some powerful groups coming together.

Word is that business leaders and other people of influence in the economy saw the crisis as an opportunity. "You don’t waste a good crisis," one leading voice was quoted as having said of the challenges facing SA.

Zuma’s December "indecision" resulted in intense lobbying. Business started lobbying hard ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, for meaningful discussion between it and the executive. The cries of business were heard loud and clear by old/new Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and the governing African National Congress.

As a result Mr Gordhan met about 60 CEOs within 48 hours of invitations being sent at the end of last month to discuss, among other things, how to avoid a downgrade and how to boost economic growth.

Leading from that, a meeting was scheduled between Mr Zuma and top executives and nonexecutives of corporations.

The element clearly missing from the engagements was labour. One could argue that some of the darlings of labour in government, such as Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Senzeni Zokwana, were part of the meeting between Zuma and business.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), especially since it is a political ally of the governing party, was annoyed that it had not been invited to the discussions and that plans to consult labour were only made after the fact.

I sympathise to an extent, but I also blame them for not having made the effort. Business saw the crisis coming in December and acted.

Where was Cosatu?

Labour in this country, especially Cosatu with its access to the governing party, had an equal opportunity to call for a meeting between the government and labour. They could have convened that meeting and invited business to the party only after the tent had been set up.

It is certainly possible that labour was considered an obstacle to the messages that needed to be sent out in Zuma’s state of the nation address and Gordhan’s budget speech this week. After all, the unions are not going to like everything they hear.

That said, labour cannot be kept outside the tent indefinitely. It is important for business and the government to take the unions into their confidence and bring them along. The lack of a properly functioning relationship between the government, business and labour poses a major threat to SA’s prospects, both economic and social. Poor co-ordination in this area could in fact push us closer to junk status, since stability is paramount.

If there are elements in business and government that believe SA will gain from undermining labour, I would advise them that this would be at their peril. The unions are powerful, especially in election years. Just recently they managed to delay the implementation of the much needed retirement reforms in SA. When unions do not have a stake in key decision-making they are quite capable of bringing the whole tent down.

As Karl Marx said: "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win."

• Ndzamela is finance writer