Business Maverick

BUSINESS MAVERICK

Summer comes to business-government relations

President Cyril Ramphosa visits Rand Water after the Covid-19 outbreak. (Photo: Gallo Images)

The thawing of relations that has characterised the Ramaphosa administration has turned into full-blown summer as business leaders and core government ministers work side by side to fight the spread of the Coronavirus, which causes the disease Covid-19.

Whether it’s called Spire (South African Pandemic Intervention and Relief Effort), Cobra (Covid Business Rescue Assistance), SAFT (South Africa Future Trust) or any of a number of other names, what is clear is that private industry and the organisations that represent them have mobilised their considerable resources in support of government efforts to curb the spread of the virus.

In almost every case the businesses behind the relief efforts want no publicity and no payment for services rendered. If anything, theirs is enlightened self-interest – if the good ship South Africa goes down, then they all go down. 

If they can support local manufacturing in the process – so much the better.

“We need to solve problems with the collective in mind,” says Gert Kruger, chief risk officer at FirstRand bank and one of the driving forces behind Spire. “This is what South Africans do in a crisis. When the crisis is big enough we stick together, no matter what.”

Like thousands of others involved in the effort (for want of a better word), working hours and weekends have gone out the window, and while the work is not easy, it is uplifting, he says. “There has not been a single business we have engaged with that has said no.”

Generally, businesses are sticking to their knitting. For instance, Aspen and Netcare are working with the government to procure essential medical equipment and ensure the right services are available in the right places. 

SAB, Distell and Sasol are producing sanitiser by the bucketful, engineering and design company Aurecon, supported the development of a device to protect healthcare workers from the coronavirus, and MultiChoice is making news channels more widely available to share credible information about Covid-19.

Private equity funders, who are used to turning around distressed businesses, are providing technical support to SMEs through the SA Venture Capital Association, while SAICA is rallying its chartered accountants to provide similar support to SMEs. 

Students of Explore Data Science Academy are building a comprehensive database that has the capacity to store all pandemic-related data in South Africa. 

“Our intention is to ensure that the database is open source and can be maintained by the broader community,” says academy co-founder Shaun Dippnall.

“The aim is to centralise data coming from a host of available resources, all of which are useful in making beneficial analyses. These resources include data from Github, repositories such as the one from the University of Pretoria, the NICD and global data sources,” he adds.

All data will be fed into a dashboard and the resulting statistics and Covid-19 information will be made freely available.

Where government agencies have skills, they are also engaged. For instance, the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) will manage the local design, development, production and procurement of respiratory ventilators to support the government’s response to combat the pandemic. Denel is tendering for some of this work.

SARAO has significant project management experience, gained from the development of complex systems for the MeerKAT radio telescope, a precursor to the world’s largest Square Kilometre Array radio telescope.

The banks are doing what they do, too.

“We are financiers, not medical experts,” says Kruger, speaking on behalf of RMB and FNB. “What we can do is mobilise funding and act fast. We don’t need to open bank accounts, we have a large procurement and outreach department and we have a massive network of clients — we bank 50,000 SME’s and 1,000 corporates — that we can reach out to.”

Communication and professionalism are vital as no one wants to duplicate or repeat the efforts of another.

“We are working closely with government, with Business for South Africa, the Solidarity Fund and medical experts,” Kruger says. 

These are examples of businesses that are seeing the impact of Covid-19 from the perspective of others and have responded with services that add value.

The Covid Business Rescue Assistance initiative, Cobra, is another example of this. 

“Cobra brings together the expertise of diverse professionals including management consultants, lawyers and turnaround strategists who can provide legal, accounting, technology and business turnaround expertise to businesses that are in financial distress,” says Adam Craker, CEO of IQbusiness, and one of the companies involved.

Small and medium enterprises, which employ more than 50% of South Africa’s workforce, according to Treasury estimates, need specific assistance with practical bread-and-butter issues affecting the sustainability of their businesses. 

These issues include an assessment of what form assistance can take, which entity can be approached for relief, how to present a case for assistance to banks and other institutions, and how to initiate a structured business rescue process if required, he says.

Cobra runs daily webinars for all interested businesses wanting to learn more about the latest insights, developments and information around the various mechanisms available to assist SMEs, and how these can be effectively accessed and leveraged.

Similarly, the Southern African Venture Capital and Private Equity Association (Savca) has launched an SMME support platform in collaboration with its membership network. 

The platform will provide small and medium-sized companies with access to industry professionals for free advice on managing the challenges they face.

“We have called on our members to donate hours from staff who have the capacity and specialist skills that companies may need, such as legal, accounting, supply-chain and industry-specific skills,” says Tanya van Lill, Savca CEO.

More than 1,100 hours have already been pledged to the platform.

In their efforts to tackle the pandemic, business and government have led from the front and shown what can be achieved when the goals are clear and the partnership intact. BM

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