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We hardly needed reminding of the ANC’s dislike of criticism – and the FNB episode has shown the ruling party, dominant as it is, seeming vulnerable and touchy.
But the saga of the bank’s perhaps ill-judged “You Can Help” campaign does impart important lessons to civil society about the scope of its influence and the dangers of exercising it half-heartedly.
The bank said it would stand firm, then caved – leaving a bemused or outraged public wondering just what FNB had in mind.
It is not clear if anyone is a winner – the ruling party appears to be the victor, having forced a concession and imposed its will, though it is doubtful it has gained anything at all, but has rather lost another increment of regard.
However, it is clear who the loser is, for the loss is a collective one that all of society must bear; that is what happens when a large corporate citizen backs down in the face of political wrath.
The ANC has had its way, and we risk cementing a politics of coercion, conceding the space for a healthier, maturer politics of persuasion and critique, of confident, civil discourse.
Which is not to say the bank’s campaign was without flaw. Did it consider the implications of material which quite clearly would place it at the centre of our fractious political debate? If so, what does the cave-in say about its courage or convictions?
The ease with which FNB backed down will nurture suspicion among critics that it was willing cynically to exploit young South Africa’s grievances and aspirations for short-term profit, but not – as its fine-sounding ad copy promises – long-term principle.
It is to be hoped in future that when big business decides to muck in on the basis of no doubt well-meant sentiment it steels itself to know what it is doing, and why, and finds the courage to see the thing through.