Business, Politics

SA business steps up to the plate, finally

By Stephen Grootes 1 November 2011

There has been much discussion, thought and pontificating about the impact, importance and effect of Julius Malema's longish-march. But there hasn't been nearly as much examination of the other side of the coin. How did business do out of the march? Is its politicking getting any better? And what lessons has it learnt so far? It's time for a re-examination. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

There’s been plenty reflection on how, in the end, Malema’s march and all the show came to nothing. Just two days later, the headlines were full of the usual Malema fare – this time the trip to Mauritius and claims of an “imminent” arrest. Some of the more conspiratorial among us may suggest that there was a group of people who simply thought his week had been too good, and perhaps it was time to shoot a little hole in his balloon.

At the beginning of the year, I felt the need to write an open letter to Business Leadership South Africa leader Bobby Godsell imploring him to get more involved in the cacophonous political space that is present day South Africa. I said at the time it wasn’t enough to just put out the odd statement, and that what was needed was a real political presence. I said also, that the presence of the Black Management Forum in Business Unity South Africa, particularly with Jimmy Manyi as its president and in government was going to muzzle business.

I have to say there has been some real progress.

Firstly, it seems some in business are beginning to learn how the game is played. Last week we had a good lesson in what business can achieve when it puts its mind to it. It came courtesy of Bheki Sibiya, the CEO of the Chamber of Mines. It’s obvious now to see why he was hired. It’s because he’s a player.

Firstly, he made sure that when Malema’s young lions arrived at the chamber’s headquarters, they were met with a huge banner. It shouted back at the marchers, “We agree with you”. It listed the ills that pretty much coincided with the protesters’ concerns. Then there was the presence of Sibiya himself. When he got on the stage, despite Malema’s insults that he was a “brother but works for the wrong boss”, he explained that “comrades” he will make sure everyone in the chamber sees the list, and that he personally undertook to get back to the League.

But he had only just begun. Then the media spin started. He gave interviews, explaining how he thought the march was well organised. And then he explained how the chamber had tried to engage the League, but how he simply hadn’t been able to nail down a date for a meeting with them. Easy spin. But it works.

But the crème-de-la-crème was what happened with the Business Day newspaper on Friday last week. Remember the day before had been a huge news day. There was the march, the election of Lindiwe Mazibuko as the DA’s parliamentary Leader and the announcement of the terms of reference for the Arms Deal. And the march. The Business Day led with “Thousands of new mine jobs possible – Chamber of Mines“. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is how spin should be spun.

So instead of Malema leading the business news cycle, you had the reaction, the list of jobs that could be created if government just got off its bum and actually did something. It was about how Transnet is hobbling the coal-mining industry, and problems with electricity provision. It wasn’t necessarily new, or anything we haven’t complained about before. But it was truly relevant.

This simple spin also did something else. It showed up Malema in a big way. It showed that he’s not interested in talking (and let’s face it, he isn’t, he’s only interested in telling – and Mauritian weddings), and that he is not actually up to doing the hard stuff. It also showed that marching solves nothing.

Unfortunately, the JSE itself didn’t have the gumption to do anything similar. It simply sent out an official who could say only “I have received your demands and will take them back to our managers”. It was pure manna for Malema who cried “look, shame he’s on his own, he doesn’t even have any friends”.

As an aside, when we look back at it all, what was the march ever going to do? Why were so many of us so impressed by a simple act of walking some of the way to Pretoria? It’s common commentariat practice to laugh at pictures of Vladimir Putin diving under the ice, or hunting with a cross-bow, or taking out 50 polar bears with a single swat of his un-gloved hand, or swimming in colder water than Gordin Lewis Pugh. They’re nonsensical acts, not really befitting a grown man involved in the serious business of running/controlling/dictating a country. And yet here, Malema is somehow seen as more serious after the march than he was before the march.

But back to the politics of business. Sibiya is the not the only person who’s grown a brass pair of late. Business Unity SA (Busa) itself is getting tougher. It can’t have been fun to have to go through the messy, public and acrimonious divorce that was the bust-up with the BMF, but it was necessary. And it shows that someone actually has the interests of business at heart, not just their own self-preservation.

At the same time, other business interests are starting to come the fore. Neren Rau at the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry is able to talk quickly and eloquently, and doesn’t have to cover his political bases in quite the same way Busa officials do. As a result, he is often clearer in what he says, and able to react to events pretty quickly. He also knows an opportunity when he sees one. As a result, business appears to be growing a new voice through him.

But alas, we have grave fears about whether these louder business voices are getting through. On Monday, Business Live held a live debate with trade and industry minister Rob Davies. Included in the panel were Stuart Jennings, representing the Manufacturers’ Circle, and Econometrix economist Russel Lamberti. Most of the discussion was taken up with the role of government in policy, and the manufacturing sector more generally.

At one point Davies was moved to say “this idea of a free market that brings you industrial development doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. I think we have to play the world as it is; this is not the world that some economists imagine we should have”. He went on to say that most countries with a large degree of industrial capacity have a large degree of industrial policy. It is, in essence, a defense of a large role for government.

But look at the argument from Lamberti: “Free markets do work… market process is real life, people are trading in what they value more and what they value less. It enhances everyone involved, they have something to trade, which makes them happier.” He went on to explain how a price rise in scarce goods, such as gas, is a great good for humanity. It makes you use less of it, and thus you make other choices.

Unfortunately, Davies was not to be convinced. Bear in mind, he’s one of the ministers who wants the Competition Appeal Court to impose stronger conditions on the Walmart merger.

On balance, the voice of business is getting stronger of late. It’s getting cannier, and, crucially, more willing to play the game. Which means that the Malemas of the world at least have to now explain: why mine nationalisation, as opposed to the previous situation in which business had to explain: why not mine nationalisation. So we’re getting there. Now, we have to start playing it even smarter. DM



Photo: Julius Malema’s economic freedom march. Phillip de Wet.

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