The business community owes Nelson Mandela a considerable debt for the foundations laid during his presidency, says Raymond Ackerman.
As the worst excesses of apartheid crept ever more resolutely around the neck of South African business, I and many of my peers in the commercial world came to recognise that it was not only an inequitable and cruel ideology, but an insurmountable obstacle to economic growth and national prosperity. It had a negative impact on the quality of life of our employees, crippled productivity, closed foreign markets and created an environment of community conflict in which corporate progress and planning was made all but impossible.
In 1994, the democratic government inherited a stagnant economy which was inward-looking, highly concentrated and globally uncompetitive, and in which growth had been negative for three years.
When I retired as chairman of Pick n Pay in 2010, South Africa was a vastly different and better place.
This dramatic turnaround from the precipice of economic disaster, was in no small measure due to Nelson Mandela’s policy of reconciliation among the races and communities of an indivisible South Africa, his acknowledgement that economic freedom was essential to an open society, and his readiness to recognise the role of the private sector in the development of a prosperous and secure society.
The business community owes Mandela a considerable debt for the foundations laid during his presidency. When he left office in 1999, his administration left behind not only an economic regime which had reinstituted fiscal discipline, reduced budget deficits and earned the plaudits of international bankers, but a political system characterised by institutional stability, democratic habits and the sovereignty of a globally admired constitution.
It was an environment in which commerce had been able to flourish and extend its international reach for the first time in almost half a century, in which labour law reform and economic transformation were incrementally transferring control of the economy from the hands of the few to those of an expanding and multiracial middle class.
Confronted by the formidable challenge of dismantling the economic legacy of apartheid, president Mandela’s guidance and influence became the informing text of a free, democratic South Africa. His foresight will forever stand as one of history’s most ambitious and idealistic statements of humanitarian purpose.
And the crowning glory of Mandela’s life is that almost 20 years after the election of 1994, the political and economic systems which that first democratic government set in place remain essentially intact. Along with the properties of democracy such as the rule of law and free and fair elections, the characteristics of a free economy remain as an essential component of the Mandela legacy.
That is not to say that all was happy concurrence and unanimity about appropriate policy approaches. At our first meeting some months after his release from Victor Verster Prison, we discussed the then-contentious question of sanctions against South Africa. I was convinced that the sanctions campaign, while probably driven by ethical motives, was succeeding only in destroying jobs and deepening poverty. The vigour of my argument was met with all the politeness and respect that characterised our subsequent engagements.
Numerous businessmen will be familiar with Mandela’s unpublicised, but irresistible, appeals for financial support in his quest to build schools and clinics, particularly in the poorest and most deprived communities. These appeals were invariably met with enthusiasm, because they came from a man who, by the sheer force of his moral virtue, had captured the loyalty and affection of people at home and abroad.
The period of South Africa’s transition was perilous and anxious and we forget how close our divided society came to disintegration. Time and again, it was only Mandela’s intervention and political acumen that restored negotiations and breathed hope anew into the processes that led to the constitutional settlement.
Even after his retirement, his influence as a moral lodestar and exemplar continued to exercise enormous impact on the conduct of our society. Without the steadying influence of Mandela’s leadership, all confidence in South Africa’s future would have rapidly evaporated, resulting in the flight of skills, capital and hope.
* Raymond Ackerman is a prominent South African businessman and former chairman of Pick n Pay.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Independent Newspapers.