South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: Something is badly wrong in South Africa

Op-Ed: Something is badly wrong in South Africa

Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA) today suspended the membership of Eskom and Transnet with immediate effect, following extensive allegations of corrupt behaviour over a long period. In a statement announcing the suspension, BLSA said: “We have to live by our values and will take a zero-tolerance approach to any organisation found in breach. With regard to Eskom in particular, as the country's national electricity supplier, is a strategic asset and due to multiple governance and operational failures, and a stretched balance sheet, now represents systemic risk to the economy as a whole. Until and unless a non conflicted, experienced and permanent Chairman and Board are appointed – who in turn appoint an experienced and honest executive team – Eskom will loom large over the economy as a threat to stability and economic growth.” The statement comes within hours of BLSA CEO BONANG MOHALE addressing an audience at the Cape Town launch of BLSA's #BusinessBelieves in South Africa. What follows is an edited extract of his speech.

If you take away just one message from today, let it be this; Business believes in South Africa. We believe in South Africa’s future. We share the values set out in its constitution. And we say humbly: we want to play our full part in the transformation South Africa so desperately needs.

You may wonder why Business should feel the need to make such an obvious point. Under normal circumstances, we would not need to.

But there is a sea of ignorance and misinformation about the role of business in South Africa. Too often we are positioned not as a national asset, but as part of the problem. This has forced us to speak out.

And to demonstrate our commitment to a better future for South Africa – last month, I and other members of the Business Leadership South Africa council went to Alexandra to launch our positive campaign, and pledged our commitment to delivering a better society for our children and grandchildren.

I am now travelling around the country to remake that commitment in every corner of South Africa. I remake it to you today in Cape Town.

But I stand before you today as a representative of business in South Africa to say: Something is wrong in South Africa. Something is badly wrong. Whilst much has changed for the better since the dark days of apartheid, too much has stayed the same.

Too many South Africans are still living low quality lives and denied the most basic opportunities; too many South Africans are without a job; too often the dream of an equal South Africa has been betrayed.

Our society continues to be ravaged by unemployment. By poverty. By nepotism. And by corruption.

Business confidence in South Africa is at a 30-year low because of the behaviour of the government and its poor leadership. And while Business must of course play its part, it is not enough.

The government must start to govern in the interests of the many and not just the few. In too many sectors of the economy and public life, policies have either been poorly conceived or poorly executed.We are not educating and empowering our people to join the workforce.

We are not creating a policy environment that supports job creation and inclusive economic growth. And so we call on the politicians, who congregate not far from where we meet today, and their counterparts in civil society to work with us in the business community to make inclusive economic growth the number one priority.

Because under these circumstances business is the answer not the enemy. When the economy is strong, South Africa is strong.

We have also been discovering to our horror, the impact of widespread corruption and state capture. These are the cancers eating away at society. And at times Business has been too disengaged from the public discussion on these cancers.

We thought that the business of business was business. We have allowed ourselves to be portrayed, as somehow separate from society, non-inclusive and self-interested. This picture is a caricature – a distortion of reality.

We are from this society. We emanate from this society. What is society if it is not the people who walk into offices and through factory gates, pack shelves and go down mines, every day? We know Business does not stand apart from society – it is society at work and, as such, a critical player in our national life.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that every caricature is founded in fact. We are well aware that business is not blameless and we are cleaning our house first and foremost. You will have seen the robust position we have taken on KPMG which engaged in unethical and unprofessional conduct completely at odds with BLSA’s values. The firm became party to the project of “state capture” which has harmed our country, victimised individuals and damaged the reputation of business. And we have called for an independent investigation and full disclosure on the part of KPMG.

But, as we acknowledge our own failings – we must also highlight that these problems are much, much greater and more serious in the government sector than in business. In business there is a culture of accountability.

This is not so in government where the organs of accountability have been captured. Too often government contracts and jobs go to the connected rather than the deserving.

That is why we supported the Cosatu protests yesterday and reiterate our call for the urgent implementation of the Public Protectors’ recommendation of a judicial investigation into state capture. That recommendation was issued nearly a year ago, and is still to be activated.

If current trends continue, the country faces a bleak future and we will be forced to live with the legacy of leaving our children a worse country than we inherited. That is unacceptable and it behoves us to leave this country in a better place than what we found.

There is no greater challenge for us all – both as individuals and as business leaders – than confronting corruption and state capture and changing it.

It is within our grasp to ensure that these trends do not continue. It is within our grasp to take the decisions necessary to shape a better life for all, not just the 400 members of parliament.

Servant leadership doesn’t mean leaders that have servants, but leaders that serve. So here I stand, before you today, to emphasise: Business believes in South Africa. South Africa’s future and our future as businesses are intertwined and inseparable.

For too long we have remained on the side-lines but today we say loudly and clearly that Business is ready to play a full part in the transformation that South Africa so desperately needs and to make sure this country works, not just for the privileged few but for everyone.

We meet just a few streets away from Cape Town City Hall, where the great Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela gave his first remarks after being released from prison. After three decades, he did not show bitterness but used his voice to articulate a positive future for South Africa – free from apartheid. We are rightly in awe of him. What he stood for. And what he achieved. A man who said no to injustice. A man who said, “Not in my name!”

We now face a new challenge in South Africa. And we must learn the lessons of Madiba’s struggle and leadership. So that when we see injustice we stand up and say ‘Not in our name’. We must not stand idly by while our brothers and sisters face the daily indignities of unemployment and poverty.

And we must work with others, be they representatives of labour, faith organisations, political parties of any kind – anyone who shares our values and wants to set this country on the right course.

And so, as we did in Alexandra, we commit again today to a Contract with South Africa. We will do all we can to:

  • Create jobs, by growing the economy – South African businesses have created 6 times as many jobs as government since 1994. Our aim is to create even more jobs.
  • Encourage and empower senior black leadership – Ultimately, the best way to close the opportunity gap is to invest in more businesses owned, run by and employing black South Africans. We pledge to grow a new generation of black business leaders and entrepreneurs.
  • Invest in South Africans – South Africa can only meet the challenges of the future with a highly-skilled workforce. We will train South African managers and workers for the challenges ahead.
  • Invest in communities – Business owes it to South Africans to do more to ensure the communities where it operates thrive and prosper. 
  • Support small businesses – They should be the lifeblood of our economy – but too often they struggle. It is our duty to help them succeed by financing new businesses, training and mentoring entrepreneurs for success.
  • Condemn and root out corruption – As I have said – corruption and state capture are the cancers that are eating away at our society. They must be rooted out, crushed and punished where we find them in the public or private sector.

This is our contract with South Africa. Judge us by it. Hold us accountable. We will be able to fulfil this contract better if the Government also steps up.

Business believes Government must also commit to create the conditions necessary for it to succeed, so the economy can grow. Too many bad decisions have got in the way of that.

Our contract is not a programme, but a commitment. A pledge. BLSA is a membership organisation. We do not have the power or the remit to tell our members how to run their businesses. So we can’t commit on their behalf to spend X billion Rand or create Y thousand jobs.

But what we can do – and what we are doing through this Contract –  is telling South Africa that we will do more. And we are committed to doing more.

It is often said that the “Tone is set at the top”.

Through the Contract, we are making clear that we absolutely understand the responsibility to lead. It is our critical mission.

We know you will judge us by our deeds and not our words. And we welcome that.

It will be the responsibility of all our members to convert words into deeds, to return to their offices, recommitted to the task, determined to be making real, tangible progress in all these different areas.

And society will be entitled to monitor the progress businesses are making towards meeting these pledges.

Last month we also launched our Integrity Pledge. As we call on Government to end corruption – we want to be clear that we as business are also doing all we can to crush it where we see it.

Our Integrity Pledge states:

  • We will have zero tolerance for corruption in our own midst. 
  • We will not act anti-competitively.
  • We will protect whistle blowers.

As I have already made clear, while Business can and must do better, we don’t live in a vacuum. We also need to see our commitment matched by government and labour.

From government we expect a commitment to crushing corruption and developing an environment that allows Business to invest, grow the economy and create the jobs without which we will not have a future worth sharing.

Labour too must step up and show that it is willing to make the sorts of commitments necessary to create a successful climate for growth and job creation.

When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first democratically elected president of South Africa he said: “The task at hand will not be easy, but you have mandated us to change South Africa from a land in which the majority lived with little hope, to one in which they can live and work with dignity, with a sense of self-esteem and confidence in the future.”

Today our cause is different but the power of Madiba’s words remain the same. We must not turn our backs.

We have today signed our Contract with South Africa and backed it up with an Integrity Pledge. It is a statement of Business’s belief in the future of the country, and our commitment to making it happen.

I ask you all – whether BLSA members or not – to sign the contract and pledge. I ask you to take it back to your workplace and share it with your staff and stakeholders. I ask you to help our campaign generate momentum and help us deliver the change we need.

It may be a struggle, but it is our struggle. And we will be guided by those leaders who have come before us who fought to change South Africa for the better. DM

Photo: Nelson Mandela is sworn in as President in Pretoria on May 10, 1994. BLSA CEO Bonang Mohale has appealed for people to follow the example set by Mandela and to help change South Africa for the better. Photo: Reuters


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