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The politics of business: It’s a matter of conscience

South Africa

Book Excerpt

The politics of business: It’s a matter of conscience

Chapter 11 from the new book, ‘Willing & Abel’.

There’s a Yiddish term, “mashuga”, which means “crazy”. The guy BASE jumping off Table Mountain? Mashuga.

The old lady who wanders down the Sea Point Promenade with no pants on? Mashuga. (Possibly a flasher… jury’s out.) The ramblings of US presidential hopeful Kanye West?

Mashuga.

They all qualify. Unfortunately, so do I when it comes to my propensity for speaking my mind. It appears that I’m one of the only idiot CEOs in South Africa who has called out corruption, who has worked with a number of key organisations that tackle corruption, who has marched against Jacob Zuma, and who has written open letters to Cyril Ramaphosa and other articles for major news outlets. Over the course of my career – and especially over the past ten years – I’ve been a lot more vocal in the media than most CEOs. Part of the reason is strategic necessity.

“One of the things Mike did incredibly well early in his career was create nationwide thought leadership for whichever agency he worked at,” says Nando’s CEO Geoff Whyte. “When he was at Ogilvy Cape Town, he made it a thought leader in South Africa despite most of the business being in Johannesburg. Mike is interested in business, the economy and politics, and I think that gives him a broader perspective; more than just a singular focus on advertising.” Thank you, Geoff. While some of the articles I’ve written have been designed to start a conversation about various aspects of advertising and brand South Africa, much of what I’ve shared falls beyond the boundaries of my day job. More and more frequently I’ve spoken out about the deteriorating state of our country and, importantly, what we can do to turn it around.

This kind of thing can attract a little praise and a lot of flak. The praise comes from the people you give a voice to by expressing what they are already thinking or feeling about where we’re going as a nation. The flak – and the mashuga – comes from those with the long-held belief that business and politics do not mix. I’ve been told that I’m “too political” and “too outspoken”, or that I’m “on the wrong side of the government at the moment” (the latter especially true when the Zuptas were in charge). Every time I heard that, I was torn. On the one hand, I find it gratifying and reassuring that I’m being heard. On the other, it’s awful that there could be consequences and fallout – for our company, our people and our shareholders – for saying the right thing.

The problem is, it’s never been a matter of choice. It’s a matter of conscience.

I can’t allow myself the luxury of keeping quiet if I think something has to be said. When it comes to politics in South Africa, the term “minding your own business” could not be more cowardly – there are few countries in the world where politics has such an impact on business. Even if my voice is deemed irrelevant in some quarters, I don’t give a damn. I’m not prepared to stay quiet. If saying what needs to be said about corruption, intolerance or gender-based violence costs our business financially, so be it. As Bill Bernbach of DDB said, “A principle is not a principle until it costs you money.” Of course there’s tension between my outspokenness and my own political affiliations. Over the years, my commentary has given many the chance to call me out for being “anti-” something – be it a political party, the government or the president. More recently, I’ve been called a denialist. Having a political standpoint will always get someone’s back up, but my orientation has always been towards finding meaningful solutions to move our country forward.

A recent example came in the form of the #ImStaying movement, which I first noticed in November 2019 as a little Facebook group of a few thousand people. Seeing its potential as a platform for active citizenry, I reached out to its founder, Jarette Petzer, to offer help with strategising, focusing and growing it. It quickly gained momentum, and membership exploded to more than a million – it became a potential driver of social cohesion, putting pressure on government and effecting tangible change for those who truly need it.

While I would like to think all this has won us friends, allies and accounts, my taking a stance has resulted in M&C Saatchi Abel losing out financially, especially in the earlier days, when politically connected kickbacks were par for the course. I once turned down an executive who wanted to buy a 26% local black ownership stake in the agency, because he refused to disclose who was involved in his consortium. He told me I was stupid and naive, and that I “didn’t understand how business is done in the new South Africa”.

My response was, “Long may it remain that way.”

He’s done very well for himself since – but has he done so ethically? Based on that interaction, I very much doubt it.

Long before the Guptas became a household name, I had a dinner meeting with the director-general of a parastatal, at his request, who later turned out to be a notorious Gupta lieutenant. With his innuendos of how, as a civil servant, he could “do well” and therefore “we can do well”, it wasn’t difficult to read between the lines. There was nothing obvious, but I didn’t like the direction the conversation was taking. Halfway through dinner I felt compelled to say something. “Maybe I’m being dof here, but I want to let you know that I won’t do anything unethical. Ever.”

Things got awkward, and within five minutes he’d got up and left, leaving me with the bill. It was a small price to pay for my integrity.

It may be a cliché, but the song that best describes M&C Saatchi Abel would have to be Frank Sinatra’s My Way. There are all those catchy lines about living a full life and not having regrets, but it’s the cautionary verse that resonates with me most of all:

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way.

I see corruption everywhere. The stench of it permeates government, politics, some businesses, municipalities. And the problem is, if we get used to it, we’ll stop smelling it. Like the crazy cat lady who has no idea she smells like her 300 cats, it will become our smell. Corruption by South Africa.

I wish speaking out wasn’t something I had to do. I wish I could focus all my attention on my work, my family and my other interests, instead of having to carve off a portion of my time for this stuff. But I speak out – because I feel I have no choice, because it has to be done, because that ideal world where “business and politics do not mix” no longer exists. Certainly not in South Africa. Even the US, the former darling of liberal ideas and democratic ideals, is faring no better. And by democratic ideals, I don’t mean the Democratic Party. In many ways I feel that the Left has left the Left.

That’s why businesses and business leaders have to take a stand.

Look at the outdoor apparel brand Patagonia. Led by Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia does not stay quiet about the things that matter. From their ad campaigns to their PR statements, they’ve put their money where their mouth is. They have, for example, gone to court to sue the Trump administration for the president’s attempts to get rid of two million acres of public land in the US (just one of Trump’s many anti-environmental acts). They’ve donated the proceeds from “Black Friday” sales to environmental groups, as well as $10 million from what they called “an irresponsible tax cut” for big corporations to groups fighting climate change.

Sure, the leaders and employees of Patagonia feel strongly about environmental causes. What they’re doing is also good business, because their customers care deeply about those issues too. That’s why Patagonia’s activism has solidified their standing as the outdoor brand with the highest customer loyalty in that segment.

Nike is another brand that has nailed its colours to the mast. In 2018, well before the murder of George Floyd and subsequent global mass protests around the Black Lives Matter movement, Nike ran an inspirational ad starring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick had been harshly criticised for refusing to stand during a pre-game national anthem in 2016. Instead, as a symbolic protest against police brutality, he had taken a knee – and he hasn’t played in the NFL since.

The Nike ad’s pay-off line was, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

When it aired, the ad caused controversy among the usual right-wing suspects on Fox News and social media. Some customers burnt their own Nikes in protest. But then, normal people and celebrities got behind the message about Kaepernick’s courage. Sales boomed, and the brand’s stock began to surge. In the end, that ad earned Nike $163 million in media exposure, a $6-billion increase in brand value and a 31% increase in sales. What it earned in respect and brand love was priceless.

As film director Spike Lee said at the time, “Nike is on the right side of history.” Fast-forward to the events of 2020, and he has been proved right.

While it is ethical, principled, courageous and smart, what Nike and Patagonia have done is not complicated. They’re still commercial companies and there’s no political manifesto – they don’t tell people how to vote, how to think, whether to favour the donkey or the elephant, or wear blue or red. They simply declare what they stand for when it comes to the big issues we should all agree on, like human rights and the environment.

Whether you join them or not is your call.

When I speak out, I’m not selling athletic gear or outdoor apparel, and I’m not pushing my company. I’m also not taking a side, or pushing a specific political agenda. Over the years, I’ve worked for the ANC, the DA and on many other politically aligned initiatives, because like Coke and Pepsi, Heineken and Castle, they were clients and we had a brief to execute. When I mix business and politics in my public statements, it has nothing to do with the factional side of politics, and everything to do with positively finding solutions to our problems and realising our country’s potential.

I speak out because South Africa has been so thoroughly looted and pillaged – by Jacob Zuma and ANC cronies, and big business like Bell Pottinger, consulting firms and major auditing firms – that the idea of regular South African business people “staying out of it” is now redundant. Why should we stay quiet? If the government is actively harming the country through corruption while also adopting policies that are unfriendly to business, the environment, education and health, what is the point of holding your tongue?

That’s why I am mashuga. I don’t put up with the bad shit I see in the world. I will keep tilting at windmills.

Other CEOs may call me crazy, naive and commercially stupid. I’ll take it, because I can say that I am not morally bankrupt. When you develop a reputation for being incorruptible, the crooks stop bothering you – and you sleep well at night because your conscience is clear.

I hope that my speaking out gives all CEOs and other business leaders the courage to do the same. We have to declare what we stand for; we have to present solutions. We have to demand transparency and accountability, good governance and proper leadership – again and again, until we are blue in the face. Or until there is change.

Call me naive, but my hope is that our country can fix itself and change course.

Speaking of fixing things…

South Africa has survived apartheid, gone through the transition to democracy and endured unparalleled state looting, unprecedented droughts, more than a decade of load-shedding, a global pandemic – and the economic tsunamis each of those have wrought. In the iconic “Fix Our Shit” ad M&C Saatchi Abel did with Nando’s, we highlighted that no matter how close we appear to be circling the plughole, South Africans have always managed to survive, endure and “fix our shit”. We are still here, the honey badger of nations, battle-hardened scrappers who know how to survive.

We see this mindset in action all the time in civil society, NGOs, businesses and individuals. When the Gupta Leaks whistle-blowers spoke out, their selfless act indirectly knocked Zuma from power and sent the Guptas running. When the government tried to shut down the National School Nutrition Programme during Covid-19 regulations, effectively removing the one daily meal relied on by 9.6 million of South Africa’s poorest learners, Equal Education took the Department of Basic Education to court and had the decision reversed.

When the Maluti-A-Phofung municipality ran the town of Harrismith into the ground through years of nepotism, corruption and debt (it owes Eskom R4 billion) citizens took matters into their own hands. Realising that the municipality was wholly incapable of delivering basic services like water and refuse collection, a bunch of civic-minded businesses and individuals known as the Harrismith Water Heroes got together to do the job themselves. It’s a brilliant example of people working together to solve the real problem, which was not the water supply or the lack of refuse collection, but the people running the municipality itself.

How do we save South Africa?

Relying on a broken government beset by factional infighting and greed will only result in more delays, more theft, more setbacks and more disappointment.

I believe we all need to be “mashuga” and “fix our shit”. Then, as citizens in every facet of life, we will build up South Africa to where it should be.

I’m always inspired by the closing line of the iconic “Think Different” Apple ad narrated by the late Steve Jobs: “Because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.”

We’re willing and able. #ActiveCitizenry. DM

Willing & Abel available to buy online at @TAKEALOT.

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