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Whatever happened to the courage of chief executives?

Keith Bryer

SINCE the formation of the Urban Foundation in 1974 South African corporations began to play a major role in challenging the apartheid system, culminating in a refusal to obey the Group Areas Act and other racial laws

The corporations got little recognition from the exiled ANC for whom it was anathema that anything good could come from the business sector, profit-driven as they all were.

Hundreds of non-governmental organisations were financed by South African big business.

The government objected, of course, and when PW Botha was in charge, there was a celebrated occasion when a senior oil company executive (who happened to be a South African) was hauled into the president’s office and called a traitor by the old crocodile.

Those were the days when chief executives had, as the Mexicans would say, “cojones”. These days this essential part of the human anatomy appears to be missing: witness the abject apology by FNB and the hasty decision of Anglo American Platinum to revise its business decision to retrench workers because of falling profitability.

What is happening?

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, chief executives were not frightened to take a stand against government policies.

Many of the larger companies made social programmes sacrosanct. Their budgets were never cut. Many of the surviving civil society organisations owe their genesis to this policy.

Then came 1994 and with a sigh of relief everything changed.

Corporate Social Responsibility programmes were cut to the bone. Departments that handled requests for aid by the civil society shed staff in droves.

The idea that it was now (thank heavens) the job of the new government took hold. It was re-enforced when international aid agencies relocated with some relief from Nairobi to Johannesburg.

There the situation has stayed. Corporations have retired into their shells, concentrating wholly on making money and shovelling it back to shareholders, many of whom are overseas.

Of course, chief executives were richly rewarded, some took out ridiculous sums in remuneration pay and bonuses, the latter being a new thing and previously unheard of.

Besides keeping their collective heads down, South African chief executives, in the main, called a halt on new investment. The result is that many companies are now sitting on a huge cash pile estimated by some as being trillions of rand.

The cause of this timidity?

Politics. Especially politics in which our leaders either speak the language of socialism or spout platitudes in praise of business, which no one believes.

After the lacklustre State of the Nation speech by President Jacob Zuma, it is clear that the country is desperately in need of real leadership: leadership of the kind that prevailed in the last decade of apartheid.

The private sector once provided it. It not only challenged power, it put forward a real alternative: economic growth in a free market milieu. It espoused individual liberty, property ownership, the rule of law, the sanctity of contract. In other words, all the things that made other developing countries boom while we stagnated under apartheid.

Most of these pillars of a democracy are preserved in the constitution and the Bill of Rights.

However, despite the president’s recent rhetoric, our constitution is under attack. Private property is no longer sacrosanct. The judiciary can be ignored with impunity. The law of contract, the right to make a profit, private property, are all being eroded.

The frog is being slowly boiled and if it does not jump out of the increasingly warm water, it will die. This analogy with the private business sector should be obvious.

Will our captains of industry wake up in time? Will they take a lead in rescuing us all from the steady attack mounted by those educated by Marxists and soaked in socialism? Will they continue to pander to those who love theory and have everywhere in the world proved they are unable to run a modern economy?

So far, all the evidence is that chief executives will stay in their trenches, refuse to invest, continue to shovel dividends offshore, and pay themselves massive salaries as a reward.

PW Botha once called those who challenged apartheid, traitors. It was not true then. Perhaps it is true now.

Everyone knows we need enlightened leadership. Will our captains of industry please get off their knees and provide it, for the sake of all of us?

Keith Bryer is a retired corporate communications consultant.

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