Ubuntu is what local executives really need

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As corporate moral fibre continues to slide, ubuntu may as well be the guiding light. When the Competition Commission was statutorily instituted in 1998, some business executives murmured, conveying their misgivings about antitrust legislation in corporate South Africa.

In its brief history the regulator has already unearthed business malfeasance aplenty, penalised greed, and defended the average man from mercantile abuse. Cases involving such titans as Pioneer Foods, Telkom, SAA, Sasol, and their peers demonstrated the grave ills of anti-competitive behaviour.

Old habits die hard. Recently some construction companies were found guilty by the commission of collusion and fixing prices. As an entrepreneur in the construction and engineering fields, I was naturally shattered by the case involving construction companies. Analysis of the historiography of the South African political economy goes a long way to explaining the current behavioural patterns of business.

Prior to the democratic dispensation in 1994, the domestic economy was not greatly transparent, and this provided a cloak for corporate governance lapses to fester. The aristocracy of a military state and the debilitating role of the insular Broederbond crept into the business front.

The existence of price-setting marketing boards, and the complacency of the regulatory environment provided a conducive setting for executive ill-discipline to evolve without abating.

Fast forward to post-1994 corporate South Africa and collusion networks and a corrosive culture of greed are still with us. For construction companies, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was a boon, an opportunity not to be missed, hence the case in question.

For the love of money

Anti-competition behaviour in the sector is the tip of the iceberg. The health sector is currently under investigation for similar offences. It is within reason to suggest that other sectors may well be dabbling in this heinous practice. As the philosopher of yore Thomas Hobbes so cautioned us, man is a creature of vices, hence the state of nature.

It follows that most companies engage in anti-competitive behaviour mostly due to greed, poor ethics, and a lack of strategic potency. Indisputably, these are counter-productive ethos that are not sustainable in the current environment.

The role of pseudo business leaders is a cause for concern. During his interview with Tina Weavind of the Business Times, Glenn Agliotti reportedly confessed that he was unapologetic about his love of money and how he got it. He is quoted as saying: “No one makes money if they are perfectly legitimate. Nowhere are things perfectly straight – not in any company or country. You attract more bees with a bucket of honey than a bucket of s***.”

“Of course, money makes you happy. Tell me if you want to fly economy class 18 hours to New York,” he said.

Thus personal moral fibre is eventually reflected in corporate culture. There is an erroneous view in some quarters that you cannot be honest and still be a successful entrepreneur. A student of business ethics should easily extol how the bankruptcy of Enron and WorldCom are corollaries of questionable business culture.

Reflection and application are attributes of quality leadership. For us at the cradle of humankind, African values of ubuntu behoves us to lead with empathy and conduct ourselves with dignity. On the industrial front, ubuntu compels us to prefer justice to fleeting corporate notoriety, care over profiteering, and fairness ahead of parasitism. Indeed, ubuntu calls us to create value and trade equitably. Pointedly, indigenous values predispose us to moral entrepreneurship.

Corporate entrepreneurial activities require a long-term view and thus business executives need to live by some set of values to stay anchored. Ubuntu values play an important role in assisting business executives to focus on long-term economic value creation.

Ubuntu values have a strong foundation of moral decency, justice, fairness and goodness. In conclusion, the diffusion of ubuntu values is an inalienable cog for sustainable business growth.

Modipa is the founder and executive chairman of Sebata Group.


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