President Jacob Zuma. Photo: Leon Nicholas.

The presidency insisted last night that its door had been open and remained open to dialogue with business and church leaders on economic and moral questions facing society, but the ANC sent out signals to some sectors of society to stop meddling in the party’s affairs.

This follows an open letter signed by 33 prominent business figures, including chief executives, in Sunday newspapers under the headlines “Building a winning nation” and “Call to action from South African business leaders”.

They said there was a need for “introspection” as South Africa faced economic distress and geopolitical changes.

“There is a strong sense that we have lost momentum,” the leaders said, days before the start of the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung.

The captains of industry included former transport director-general Ketso Gordhan, who is now PPC chief executive-designate, Gold Fields chief executive Nick Holland, Lonmin’s acting chief executive Simon Scott, AngloGold Ashanti chief executive Mark Cutifani, Nedbank chief executive Mike Brown, Discovery chief executive Adrian Gore, Tiger Brands chief executive Peter Matlare and FirstRand chief executive Sizwe Nxasana.

The plea from business leaders was followed by a letter from top clerics who expressed concern about the moral deterioration of South Africa. In a letter to President Jacob Zuma, they suggested the country had lost its moral compass.

While Zuma’s spokesman Mac Maharaj was emphatic that the government had been holding discussions with business groups, church leaders, labour and community constituencies regularly, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe came out guns blazing.

At a hastily convened press conference in Luthuli House in Johannesburg, Mantashe was reported by Sapa as saying: “We see this as a mischievous warning… directed at the ANC” ahead of its conference, which starts on Sunday.

Sectors of society were trying to manipulate the outcome, he argued. “[They] want a particular outcome.” It was not explained what that might be.

The clerics wrote that South Africans yearned “for a change from an increasingly corrupt political, business and societal culture to one that is accountable to the people”.

The business leaders said that they were committed to supporting the National Development Plan, which they described as a vision for a South African economy that would be “three times the present size”, with an unemployment rate reduced to 6 percent “and significant reductions in poverty and inequality by 2030”.

They said they would promote “a zero tolerance approach towards bribery, fraud, corruption and anti-competitive business practices. We commit to engaging with government and other public sector parties to foster ethical business behaviours necessary to create a modern, efficient and competitive economy that supports the growth of small, medium and micro enterprises which are crucial to job creation.”

Maharaj said the presidency had noted the advertisement and “welcomes inputs into the discussions on how to build the economy and, in particular, ensure labour-absorbing growth that will take us further in dealing with poverty, inequality and unemployment”.

He noted that the president had convened in October “a high-level dialogue on the economy with Nedlac constituents [including] government, business, labour and community sector”, adding that Business Unity SA, the Black Business Council, Cosatu, the Federation of Unions of SA, and the National Council of Trade Unions were included.

“The parties considered the domestic economic situation as well as pressures from the global slowdown and took several decisions which are being implemented,” he insisted.

“The President will continuously engage business in the new year.”