Business, Politics

Business needs to find its voice and take courage

By Mandy De Waal 2 September 2011

As one agenda increasingly takes hold of the national discourse and business takes cover, keeping its head ever under the firing line, the outspoken vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, Jonathan Jansen, remains a critical voice of reason. Jansen says we all need to stop hiding, stand up, steel ourselves and be counted. By MANDY DE WAAL.

South Africans are increasingly deserting the public discourse as the heat of politics increases and the debate gets muddied, bloodied and even more emotionally wrought. Speaking out against government or elements within the ruling party almost certainly guarantees the outspoken of coming away with a metaphorical bloody nose (if you’re lucky), as political infighting between the ANC and ANCYL becomes an all out brawl.

In that wake of a city being trashed in the name of protest, UFS head Jonathan Jansen says it is about time that local business, and all South Africans, stepped back into the public discourse, regardless of how difficult this becomes. Our country’s future depends on our bravery and ability to speak out against indecency, he says.

“Everybody is absent from the public discourse at the moment. Look at the chaos and barbaric behaviour of young and older people at the Malema protests in Johannesburg,” says Jansen. “In a normal democracy, ten organisations would join religious groupings that would stand up and say that behaviour is not acceptable. The political arena would be alive with opinion about the matter, and business would have come out with figures indicating the cost of that kind of behaviour.

“The educational sector would have uttered that it is an outrage that children is running around instead of being at university and school. Instead, there is so much silence,” says Jansen. “It is true that the business community is very absent, but the other parts of our democracy that should be in the debate and the discourse, are not there either.”

Jansen says that business is particularly vulnerable in the kind of country where it would be accused by the government for speaking out, even if this accusation is merely rhetorical. “The youth league would profess a socialist version of the future and this is a very powerfully rhetoric that immediately puts business in the firing line. This is because most of the dominant business actors are white and male. Standing up against the youth league or even government comes with a stinging rebuke that includes race, class and capitalist accusations that keep people incredibly shy.”

Jansen says a good example of this is Bobby Godsell, who though an avowed capitalist, was a union man at heart and was strongly supportive of Cosatu. “The minute Godsell got a public face, he got slapped down so much that ANC types had to run to his rescue. But by that time it was too late, the damage had been done, the message had been sent and he went underground.”

The head of the UFS and author of “Knowledge In The Blood” and “We Need To Talk” says the anti-white, anti-rich discourse makes it difficult, if not impossible, for white capitalists to stand up and speak out because speaking out is an almost guarantee of being shamed.

“The only time that you see business communities getting up and being public is when it is an anti-white or racial issue. The most prominent debate is about the role of whites in black business associations, but for the most part white business people stay out of the debate because they deem it too damaging for their company and reputation.”

Jansen says: “If you look at the statements of an Andile Lungisa, it becomes more understandable why business wants to get on with running their businesses, ensuring profits and getting on with their lives. Yes I understand it but I don’t accept it”.

A week ago Andile Lungisa, chairman of the National Youth Development Agency, was speaking in Cape Town at the Black Management Forum young professionals’ summit when he said that “white males, they need to be attended (to)”, attacked the “Stellenbosch mafia” and declared that September would see youth making South Africa ungovernable. “In September, we are going to close every street in South Africa. If there is a cheese in your fridge, they are going to take it,” Lungisa is quoted as saying.

Although it is convenient for business to stay quiet, it is not advisable, sustainable or in the long term interests of South Africa, says Jansen. “What I am seeing is the serious breaking down of South Africa and the implications for democracy and decency is huge. The only person that is speaking out nowadays is the chairperson of the ANC and that is only because he has to.”

“We are all afraid. We are all scared and we are all looking at our own nest. If we don’t speak up against tyranny, it will grow in our country.” Jansen says that he is continually in trouble because he does speak up, but he does so because he has a commitment to his children, to his university and to society as a whole.

“I cannot see why everything that we struggled for in this democracy should be taken away by people who don’t give a damn about this country and its future. We need to speak up even if speaking up comes at a price.” DM



Read more:

  • Jonathan Jansen: ‘Time to bring back the nuns’ in Daily Maverick.

Photo: Courtesy of UOFS

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