ANC and business face off

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FNB100 Nonhlanhla Kambule First National Bank autoteller machine at Eastgate in Gauteng.

It was probably too much to expect that 2013 would get off to an uneventful start, especially after the Mangaung ANC conference provided very little in the way of any surprises.

If the ructions that have transpired thus far in January are any indication, 2013 will be no different from 2012, the year that brought us Marikana. Farmworkers in the Western Cape continue to seethe with anger as their demands for higher wages continue to meet resistance from employers. Fresh trouble is brewing in the mining sector as looming retrenchments raise tension.

The verbal lashing of Anglo American by Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu a few weeks ago was no accident. It underscored the distrust that persists between the government and the South African mining industry.

News that Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), a subsidiary of Anglo American, is contemplating sacking 14 000 miners is unfortunate but it should not have come as a surprise. The platinum industry will mostly likely take years to recover from last year’s one-two punch of labour unrest and slumping demand. That the minister will throw a public fit over Amplats plans and threatens seizure of mining licences, is worrying in many respects, but of paramount importance is her failure to realise that Amplats’s restructuring only represents the tip of the iceberg.

In other words, Shabangu ought to brace herself for a lot more bad news from the mining front.

What about Lonmin? The embattled platinum producer has only managed to kick the can down the road. Just like everybody else, the company faces rising costs, stunted productivity and falling profits.

These factors alone make it inevitable that Lonmin, just like Amplats, will also make pronouncements that will again cause Shabangu to be very upset.

Perhaps through no fault of his own, Chris Griffith, the chief executive of Amplats, really thought he had all his bases covered when he made the fateful announcement. Alas! His lieutenants should have made sure that when the announcement finally came, the government would not feel blind-sided.

Both the government and Amplats are now involved in full-scale damage control that possibly would have never been necessary in the first place had Amplats considered the prevailing business-political context in the country.

And what that context entails was manifested this past week when FNB found itself in hot water about a commercial, which the ANC saw as an affront to the party and the government.

The party’s youth wing even called it “treasonous”. The sub-text of the FNB episode is that business must “mind its own business” and must make sure that it never says or does anything that upsets the the ruling party.

But no matter how FNB or the ANC spins or unspins this episode, the real truth is that in the eyes of the world South Africa is increasingly looking like a place where doing business is fraught with all sorts of grave risks – real or imagined.

The tally of business executives that have recently been hauled over to the ANC’s headquarters in downtown Johannesburg to explain their utterances or apologise is growing. Is it any coincidence that last year saw another top bank executive dragged to Luthuli House – Nedbank chairman Reuel Khoza – and now Sizwe Nxasana, the chief executive of FNB holding company FirstRand? Probably not.

Just as it appears that the government has a beef with the mining industry, the banking industry possibly has a real beef with how unsavoury the business climate is becoming, especially as the ANC continues to see enemies and counter-revolutionaries instead of allies and true compatriots among the business elite.

One has to worry about what this all means for the future. We cannot have FNB saying it has pulled its adverts down in order to protect the children featured in them. Protect them from whom? Their own government?

Contrition by FNB and its executives before the ANC will do nothing to change the fact that what has been deemed offensive about the adverts constitutes the real concerns of many South Africans.

The pupils featured in the ads will most probably have heard of the 1976 generation. So are both the ANC and FNB now saying today’s generation is only worth being seen but not heard? It’s something to think about.


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