Prior to 1994 – and thanks in no small measure to the omnipresent influence of the Broederbond – business in South Africa, big and small and exclusively white, had little need to raise its voice in public debate. A discrete telephone call or gentlemanly meeting usually sufficed. That world is dead, long dead. Yet business, especially big business, remains conspicuous by its silence in the face of a cacophony of anti-business, anti-capitalist bluster from politicians. Why? STEPHEN GROOTES writes an open letter to the chairman of Business Unity South Africa pleading for an about-turn in this mindset.
Earlier this year we suggested that when it came to the big arguments of our time, big business was simply absent. It was not a major player. And, as a capitalist website, we thought we should mention this, because we think everyone should have an equal voice in society, and especially because the voice of business does matter – as it should. There may be some self-interest in this for us, but to put it bluntly, if the capitalists aren’t going to speak up for capitalism, well, then who will? Yesterday this issue came up again when Business Leadership South Africa chairman Bobby Godsell was asked if business was involved enough. He seemed to think the answer was affirmative. So The Daily Maverick has written an open letter to Godsell, to suggest the answer might be the complete opposite:
Dear Mr Godsell,
When I sat across the table from you yesterday (I was the one with the tiny Dell laptop and the EWN microphone) you seemed to take slight umbrage at a suggestion from my colleague (from The Economist, of all publications) when she said that, as someone with much international experience, she was always surprised business was so quiet in this country. You said this was not true. You said, “Business Unity South Africa’s position on the proposed labour laws in emphatic, that we cannot negotiate this”. You also said, “There is no reticence (to take part in the debate), but you also have to have something to say.”
You are right to say Busa has put out the odd statement now and then about the labour laws. But South African society is now a cacophonous place. It’s loud. There are many voices in that continuum, and they all shout. Loudly. Repeatedly. Sir, you and your colleagues whisper. Busa has had one real press conference (in September last year, just before the ANC’s national general council) to discuss politics and the economy. Since the launch of the “New Growth Path”, you yourself, according to our memory, have spoken just once about it, during a meeting with economic development minister Ebrahim Patel.
Mr Godsell, this is simply not enough. The fact is Cosatu has press conferences literally every second week. The ANC Youth League whenever it feels like it, and the ANC at least twice a month. Their leaders speak in public and do so often. Hardly a week goes by without a public address by the main leaders of each one of these organisations. These organisations call themselves progressive, their agendas (despite some serious disagreements) are all roughly the same, and are roughly opposite to yours. That means that news and discourse in this country is dominated by a group of people who agree on one broad philosophy. Again, opposite from yours.
Now compare that to what we hear from business. I’m afraid an opinion piece in Business Day doesn’t cut it in the court of public opinion any more. It would not be a great effort for a man such as yourself to make a good, fiery speech once a month. You don’t have to vary it much, it’s about putting your agenda out there. If you do it right, you’ll probably be the lead in Business Day now and then. Look at the press Cynthia Carroll enjoyed when she spoke against nationalisation at the Mining Indaba two weeks ago. We think the state-owning and running mines is an idea fraught with difficulties. You think it’s a terrible idea. Why don’t you say that to everyone who cares to listen? And repeat it. Many times.
You may think that you have to have something interesting and new to say each time you and your colleagues speak. I’m afraid that is not how our society works anymore. Volume matters. Repetition matters. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Julius Malema say that the lives of the poor will be hunky-dory if the mines are nationalised, or how often I’ve heard Zwelinzima Vavi use the phrase “political hyena”, or even the President say the ANC would focus on its five priorities. I don’t complain. And I won’t complain if you start to pump up the volume and repeat your message more often.
There is another more difficult matter. One of the big problems that you face, sir, is that Busa is politically compromised at the moment. As you know, Jimmy Manyi is president of the Black Management Forum. And the BMF is one of the more influential members of Busa. While this is not a comment on whether or not that is a conflict, it must certainly be a conflict when business is negotiating with government. It cannot be that one person is a major role player on the business side of the equation, and then an employee of cabinet. Quite frankly, I personally think the BMF’s role in Busa is one the main reasons Busa treads so gingerly so much of the time. One day soon you will have to bite the bullet and try to resolve the issue. It is forcing you to debate with one arm tied behind your back.
Sir, we realise that in many societies it is the people who want change who work hardest to attain it. It’s the people who are comfortable, who are well-off and don’t feel the need to work up a sweat, that go to the mattress. We see you as one of the most capable and connected business leaders we have. We want to hear your voice in these debates. Loudly and often.
Thank you. DM
Grootes is an EWN reporter.
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.