South African business leaders can reassert
their influence by switching to a more positive
style of debate, getting involved in the growing
number of policy forums around the country and
doing their bit to upgrade the country’s skill base.
South Africa is at another important economic and political turning point. This year’s elections, set to be the most contested since the advent of democracy in 1994, come as the global economic crisis threatens to reverse many of the advances of the last decade. Marginalized, poverty stricken sections of society are suffering particularly hard as companies cut thousands of jobs and delay big investments in response to lower worldwide demand for their products.
Over the past decade, businesses have played a significant role in South Africa through their tax contributions, by creating jobs, investing in infrastructure and adhering to the government’s black economic empowerment (BEE) policies. Millions have been lifted out of poverty and, according to a study by the Bureau of Market Research at the University of SA, the black middle class grew by 50 per cent to nine million between 2001 and 2007. In the current economic climate – with more than 23 per cent of the population unemployed (or 38 per cent if one uses the broader definition of people who have given up looking for work) – South Africa needs the ingenuity and imagination of business people more than ever. We believe there are three important steps that enlightened executives can take.
Business needs, above all, to establish a positive agenda. Complaints about political patronage, corruption, crime and delivery inefficiencies are understandable, but they tend to alienate policymakers at a time when economic solutions are so urgent. In any communication, be it in the media or in private engagements with key influencers, executives should adopt a constructive tone and one that serves the interests of the country. South Africa is crying out for strong business and political leadership. Arrogance and patronizing remarks merely fuel suspicion among those hostile to business that executives do not have the country’s interests at heart and are only interested in repatriating quick profits to foreign shareholders.
Companies such as Anglo American and Sasol, criticized by President Mbeki some years back for “unpatriotic” comments, are among those who have worked hard to demonstrate how their investments uphold the government’s socio-economic ambitions. They have been rewarded by much improved relations with the government and, not surprisingly, both have been lauded as national champions.
Join the debate
Executives have a new opportunity to get involved thanks to the plethora of multi-stakeholder dialogues and scenario mapping exercises being run by sections of the media, business schools, political parties and other organizations. At Brunswick, for example, we have started an Imbizo (Zulu for gathering or meeting) breakfast series, in which CEOs engage with other thought leaders. A common theme of our discussions has been how to reverse the corporate sector’s increasing alienation from government.
Speaking at one Imbizo, the author Clem Sunter, a well known strategist and scenario planner, insisted that South Africa had an opportunity to once again “amaze the world”. He stressed that despite the shock of global events, South Africans do have some control over their own destiny. Multi-stakeholder dialogues are therefore important platforms to lobby for business friendly policies in the national economic agenda.