The outrage levelled at First National Bank (FNB) is the latest embarrassing fracas the party has immersed itself in, successfully hogging headlines from Monday to Sunday last week. What began as an evidently well-intentioned marketing campaign ended in an eviscerating bloody mess for three of the bank’s senior executives and its parent company’s chief executive, Sizwe Nxasana. By all accounts Gwede “the General” Mantashe let the bank’s executives have it with both truncated barrels, including a thinly veiled threat disguised as a reminder that FNB enjoyed a significant share of government’s deposits, as if the bank may have carelessly forgotten. Economist Dawie Roodt estimates these deposits to range between R20 billion and R60 billion at any given time, sufficient to focus the attention of First Rand’s executives for long enough to elicit an apology and a commitment to never see such a transgression of the party’s sensitivities again. The public was left with no illusions that the bank spent the weekend licking its wounds. To add insult to injury, a good deal of public backlash followed, with many decrying FNB’s capitulation.
What to make of FNB’s “You Can Help” campaign then? Most marketing commentators have decried the bank’s fundamental error of straying into the minefield of politics. Many have called it naïve and reckless and pointed out that speaking truth to power is not the job of a retail bank or any other business for that matter. I don’t believe it was FNB’s intention to deliberately stray into politics, but in its quest to somehow entwine its brand proposition with the social narrative it trammelled itself in the snare that is the ANC’s paranoia. I disagree with these commentators’ views and argued last week that business has an obligation to contribute to the broader dialogue, which in South Africa means an inevitable sojourn into political terrain. I applaud FNB for it, even though it will become a landmark marketing case study on why not to pull the politics card, and I encourage more big businesses to be vocal and critical, in addition to contributing innovative solutions. A hallmark of a mature democracy is the level of tolerance in the public discourse. South Africa is far from becoming a mature democracy, but the sooner we set sail the better, and everyone has a contribution to make. The more robust the contributions, the more robust the democracy.
What this fiasco and others demonstrate (think Reuel Khoza’s criticism, the Spear debacle or any number of hysterical defences of failing ministers and the president), is an increasing intolerance of dissent, the adoption of a default aggressive and intimidating reaction, and a troubling penchant for contemptuous hectoring. I can no longer recall the number of commentators across the political spectrum who’ve been unable to resist invoking an unnerving comparison to the old Nationalist rooigevaar rhetoric. Instead of fearing communist revolutionaries under our beds we’re told to fear the “counter-revolutionaries”. In both cases it’s a clear cut warning to anyone whose ideology differs from that of the central governors that dissent is unpatriotic and will be evicted. Seriously, is this what thousands of people surrendered their lives, their families, their futures for?
The Bureau for Economic Research just released a study entitled Profile of the Formal Business Sector in South Africa 2006-10, which reveals that the contribution of small businesses to our economy actually declined from 16.4% in 2006 to 14.4% in 2011, while the contribution of large businesses remained constant at around the 75% level. Overwhelming evidence from our BRICS partners Brazil, India and China indicates that the only meaningful creator of employment is the realisation of small business entrepreneurism, so these numbers are hugely concerning. Of even greater concern is the loss of jobs in the mining sector and quite possibly agriculture. Leaving aside the issue of whether or not their levels of remuneration constitute a living wage, it’s a fact that both sectors are major employers that contribute significant numbers to the employment pool. Does the ANC really think that threatening and bullying a bank over commentary in its annual report or an advertising campaign is a constructive approach? Will this intolerance lead to greater business confidence, more foreign direct investment and a business friendly culture?
The central issue here is leadership. By hauling business executives over the coals in such a shrill and public manner the ANC has failed a primary leadership test. While the party’s reaction to Khoza was arguably provoked, it’s a ridiculous stretch to make the same argument in the FNB case. FNB’s naivety in posting some of the content on the Internet is inexcusable, whatever the intent. Some of it was patently outside the parameters of the brand’s proposition of “You Can Help” and one has to question how this material made it to the final cut when it was so off brief. However it by no means justifies the ANC’s reaction.
All leadership positions collect an unfair amount of flak, particularly when things aren't going well. The ANC frequently conflates party and government as if they’re one and the same. Spokesperson Jackson Mthembu even went so far as to say as much in an official statement on 27 January, referring to government as a subject of the ANC, using the terms “it’s(sic) government” and “our government” – an indication of the ANC’s state of mind and reprehensibly conceited attitude to power. Government’s basic job is to be the leader, to lead by example, to hold true to the principles of the Constitution and, very importantly, to set the tone of the dialogue. It is a responsibility bestowed upon it by the electorate. By launching scathing public attacks the ANC lowers the dialogue bar to rabble rousing, while pointing stabbing accusatory fingers at its critics and invoking flashbacks of the utterly humourless, mean spirited and diabolical PW Botha and his henchmen. It’s irresistible not to ask the inevitable leadership question – what would Nelson Mandela have done? DM
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