Business must come to the table

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The writer says the chances of the ANC fulfilling its election promise to grow the economy by 6 million jobs are slim while there is misalignment between what it seeks to achieve and the stance of the private sector to maintain the status quo. Photo: Chris Collingridge.

Johannesburg - More than 11.5 million South Africans have spoken ‘loud and clear’ about their preference to lead government for the next five years – paving the way for Jacob Zuma’s second term as head of the government that will be responsible for growing the economy to create 6 million job opportunities, as the ANC has promised in their manifesto in the run-up to the May 7 general elections.

However, the reality is that these 6 million job opportunities will not fall from the sky like biblical manna.

They will have to be created by the private sector in an environment conducive to massive investment in the economy – where entrepreneurs will be willing to risk their life savings to start companies and create much-needed jobs for the masses.

The question is: what are the chances of this happening in an environment where there is misalignment between what the government seeks to achieve in terms of transforming the economy and the stubborn stance of the private sector to maintain the status quo?

A typical example of this misalignment between the government and the private sector was aptly illustrated by the remarks of Sanlam chief executive Johan van Zyl when he scoffed at the idea of setting up an small, medium and micro enterprises (SMME) ministry as a possible antidote to our stagnant economic growth.

He was reportedly saying better outcomes were possible if businesses ramped up efforts to support and grow smaller suppliers in their value-chain systems.

The question is why the Sanlam chief had to wait for the ANC to remark about the possible creation of an SMME ministry before proffering his opinion on the issue?

Surely, an organisation of Sanlam’s stature, with Patrice Motsepe as its deputy chair and Philisiwe Buthelezi-Mthethwa its non-executive director, it has within its disposal better ways of making its views known to the ruling party instead of a wrestling match in the media.

While this public exchange of ideas might be interpreted as democracy in action, it is, on other hand, symptomatic of a massive breakdown of relations between the government and business.

Resorting to the media to debate issues of national importance is cowardly of business.

They should rather engage constructively around a boardroom table.

This is untenable for a young nation that has so much to talk about and do to collectively deliver a more just, equitable and prosperous South Africa for all.

Lumkile Mondi, the chief economist of the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), eloquently put this point across in a radio show recently when he said the previous Zuma administration did well in aligning itself with black business but unfortunately black business did not have sufficient capital, experience and global networks to move the country forward.

A more collaborative approach with established and predominantly white business was more favourable for potential progress on the economic front.

Probably on the part of government, the thinking would be why bother to entrust the business community with anything, as they have failed dismally to voluntarily implement employment equity and black economic empowerment (BEE) in their businesses?

As a product of the private sector, I can tell of horror stories about how we manufactured and manipulated employment equity statistics to paint a picture of a truly transformed business when pitching for business in the public sector.

I recall a black executive instructing me to turn our poor employment equity (EE) stats into a positive narrative.

And the pension fund trustees, mostly from the trade union movement, took the bait – hook, line and sinker.

At a presentation to defend the poor investment performance of his fund, a white veteran investment manager even lied to pension fund trustees, saying they sent their black investment professionals to London for specialised investment training.

When asked about this lie, his response was that he would do everything in his power to defend his chances of a fat bonus.

The white investment manager, after the bonuses were paid in March of that financial year, upgraded his Land Rover SUV and took his entire family, including his brother-in-law’s family, for a skiing trip in Canada, which was followed by a trip to the US to watch the Masters Golf Tournament.

Within a few months, black investment professionals resigned in droves in protest to start their own black-owned investment boutiques.

White bosses, probably with the exception of a few, are not interested in a truly economically transformed South Africa where their power and influence would be drastically curtailed.

The view of the white establishment, it would seem, is that the poor black masses can continue voting for the ANC in perpetuity if they like; the comrades can continue scavenging over government tenders indefinitely; and the poor blacks can continue feeding off the social grant system until the state coffers are completely depleted – for all they care as long as their comfort and economic status is untouched.

Interestingly, an aggrieved white voter on Radio 702 recently, who, upon realising that despite all the negative campaigning in the media, the ANC was set for another landslide at the polls, said that taxpayers (read whites) should vote twice against the single ballot of the beneficiaries (read poor blacks) of their taxes.

Celebrity political analyst Steven Friedman says this breakdown of relations between business and politicians is owing to a ‘deficit of trust’ dating back to the hardened attitudes of the pre-1994 era.

However, the recent elections, especially with the potential of Cyril Ramaphosa becoming Zuma’s second-in-command at the Union Buildings, there exists now a window of opportunity for serious dialogue about the economy against the backdrop of a measly 1.9 percent economic growth last year, while the rest of the continent is growing in excess of 5 percent.

This ‘deficit of trust’ has also ensured that business unity remains a dream deferred, almost in perpetuity. Business formations work in silos with disjointed agendas – making the work of the authorities to promote our business interests internationally nigh on impossible.

The eternal optimist in me remains hopeful that Ramaphosa, who spent many hours with Roelf Meyer fly-fishing in the rivers of Knysna, in the process of negotiating South Africa’s political settlement, will once again rise to the occasion as we desperately need to settle the economic question before things fall apart.

 

Khaya Buthelezi is Nafcoc’s head of communication.


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