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Business Leadership SA’s Busi Mavuso: We’re naive to think we can achieve stability in the face of inequality

Busi Mavuso, Chief Executive Officer of Business Leadership South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Masi Losi)

From a young age, Busi Mavuso has always been a top achiever. She has transformed her life from one of great difficulty to one of great possibility, using her intellect and determination to quickly scale the corporate ladder. But it is in her current role as the chief executive officer of Business Leadership South Africa that the 43-year-old will really be tested – and judged.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

In the wake of days of rioting and fear, Busi Mavuso agreed to a frank-talking interview last week to explore more about her past, but also to answer questions on her role as a black woman in a white man’s business world.

Mavuso is a fairly familiar face in the media. She’s articulate, informed and occasionally outspoken. Although she is now in the top corporate echelons as the CEO of Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA), she still has the manner of an activist. So we begin our conversation with what she thinks are her formative influences, starting with her mother.

Mavuso grew up in White City, Jabavu, in Soweto. She was a child, then a schoolgirl, in one of the epicentres of the anti-apartheid struggle during the last 16 tumultuous years that took us to freedom in 1994.

Her mother, Veronica Khosi Mavuso, was a teacher who had been widowed at a young age. On a teacher’s low salary, Veronica was the breadwinner for her four children.

Despite the odds, Mavuso, a bright child, completed her matric at Lofentse Girls High School in Orlando East “with flying colours at the tender age of 16. But because of the family’s financial constraints I had to immediately find a job.”

Her aspiration was to be a chartered accountant (CA), which may explain why her first job was in banking. She had offers of places at university “and was very clear that I wanted to be a CA because I was good at maths”, but she had to work. So she studied through Unisa, a degree that took her nine years to complete.

“I found the transition [to university] very difficult” because there was little support for students coming from an environment like mine, where no one had been to university before. When my mum died at the age of 62 in 2012, she was still trying to get an undergraduate degree. I had no point of reference. You sit with this burden of being the first.”

“Then, just as quickly, I find myself in a corporate culture but how do you assimilate, how do you navigate this corporate culture?

“My 14-year-old daughter doesn’t understand when I tell her that this was the first time I interacted with a computer! I was so scared to touch that damn thing. I was afraid, my mum was dependent on me – if I break this damn thing, these white people are going to fire me.”

Later, she went on to start a postgraduate Certificate in the Theory of Accounting (CTA), “but I failed that dismally”. She says she hadn’t understood the need to do articles “somewhere in between” but, anyway, “I couldn’t afford to do that!”

Eventually, Mavuso qualified as a chartered accountant through distance learning with the Association of Certified Chartered Accountants in the UK.

“So, then I attained my childhood dream of being an accountant … 23 years after leaving school.”

Although she now lives in the suburbs of Johannesburg, Mavuso’s family still live in Soweto.

She explains that what her experience taught her was that “the most gifted of us cannot escape the limitations our environment imposes on us, of where we come from”.

“This is where the activist in me comes in… I have been given opportunities where many are so stuck, I’m still an outlier. How many who come from where I have come from have had the luck?

“It doesn’t have to be like that”, she says firmly, but without rancour.

In this context, she describes her interest in “advancing the young black African women’s agenda and the broader women’s agenda”.

“We need a strong cohort of women. Tragically, most impoverished women inadvertently give birth to kids with greatly reduced opportunities, and let’s be clear I’m not just talking about material poverty…

“I’m talking about being denied access to thinking … initiative … knowledge … and, for millions of children, this reproduces cycles of poverty and inequality.

“As women we are often the primary caregivers… We do our best to raise … nurture…

“We groom and we conscientise! That’s why I believe in the empowerment of women. The vital role they play in shaping human beings. We need to make women less poor in this country.”

Into the lion’s den

In 2009, Mavuso left banking to become part of the Black Management Forum (BMF), eventually rising to become its managing director. She resigned in 2018 to become the chief operating officer of Business Leadership South Africa, under her mentor, business high flyer and chancellor of the University of the Free State, Bonang Mohale.

“My nine years at the BMF cemented my belief that transformation is not a nice-to-have, but a must. We are naive to think we can sit with such high levels of inequality and still achieve stability.”

As proof she refers to the recent riots and “anarchy” that in the days before we talked had shaken South Africa.

“Domestic inequality, people’s helplessness is way too much and way too palpable.

“There has to be a serious intervention that deals with the structural inequalities we have.”

And this is where our conversation shifts gear! I want to know how, given her background, has she allowed herself to become the face of what many would call White Monopoly Capital? Isn’t there a contradiction? Shouldn’t a person with her beliefs and background be in government or civil society?

Mavuso is unrepentant. She says she had “precisely that internal battle”, but knows what she’s doing.

She quotes a discussion she had with Mohale who told her “business needs us because business in South Africa needs to transform.

“It will take our kind of thinking. In business, you are given an opportunity to not only speak truth to power but to speak truth to your own constituency.”

But in addition she says that “conditions for people to prosper are not God-given, they are created through policy”.

At this point her frank talk surprises me.

She argues strongly that the root of the problem is that the government has failed to insist on transformation by business; that it has failed to be “intentional about driving a particular agenda”.

She argues that it should be “dragging White Monopoly Capital kicking and screaming” on to a path that it doesn’t realise is in its own best interests, comparing it to a child that resists parental discipline.

In this regard she talks approvingly of the way the apartheid government created a conducive environment for white business interests and the white poor after 1948.

She tells me that capital doesn’t have a conscience, “it doesn’t care”.

“It’s like water, it goes where it’s easiest. If you make it difficult to operate in an environment, it just goes elsewhere to an environment where it’s more conducive to do what it’s meant to do.”

There are only 120,000 people earning more than R1,5-million per annum… Seven million people are carrying 18 million people who are dependent on social grants… We can’t continue to overtax seven million to feed 18 million.

She lists the full catalogue of indicators of our country’s inequality, poverty and economic failure, and asks, “At what point does government say I’m going to have to change my tack?”

Thus, she insists, “I blame government. When a country fails, it is not up to business, which cannot dictate the agenda.

“You give business a conducive environment and then you give them the marching orders. Governments must drive capital to fulfil a particular objective.”

Transformation fails when “business thinks regulation and legislation is just lip service; nothing ever happens if you don’t comply. They just push back at you.”

This leads us to a discussion on the role of the state, which Mavuso believes must drive economic development, but notes that “growth cannot be achieved without transformation of the economy and business”.

I ask her whether she thinks there is a problem with regulation per se (a common complaint by business) or with inefficiency, bureaucracy and corruption in the operation of reasonable and necessary regulations to ensure that business operates fairly and in accordance with the transformative objective of our much-lauded Constitution?

“I 100% agree with that,” she replies.

Another problem, I put to her, is that the state is weak, undercapacitated and underfunded. The environment she desires requires a capable state: doesn’t this require increased corporate taxation and even a wealth tax?

This time Mavuso returns to the more familiar tropes of business.

“I’m not convinced that taxing the few will help. After all, who are you taxing?

“There are only 120,000 people earning more than R1,5-million per annum… Seven million people are carrying 18 million people who are dependent on social grants… We can’t continue to overtax seven million to feed 18 million.”

She concedes wealth taxes are different “but are they sustainable?”

She doesn’t answer her own question, leaving us hanging on the question of how we can resource the state in the short term to meet its pressing constitutional obligations; the very “palpable omissions” – hunger, joblessness and indignity – that are fomenting the desperation and, ultimately, anger that was witnessed in the recent riots.

Finally, Mavuso “wonders if” the recent anarchy may have had “a silver lining”. She thinks it could have been “a turning point” in business consciousness.

When I challenge her and say that I’ve heard this before, she says that in her recent engagements with BLSA members, their concern “seems heartfelt – but ask me more in six weeks”.

They are, for example, “willing to deal with youth unemployment, but we haven’t translated that to what that looks like…” She agrees that “we’ve defined the what but not the how”.

I complain that business seems to have a contract with the government but not the people of South Africa. For example, faced with crises like the current one, it fails to talk to its critics in civil society.

Mavuso agrees with the need to talk to civil society more widely.

“When we have the conversations, I don’t know if we have dug deep enough. Usually once we’ve dealt with the immediate crisis, we move on. They haven’t got to the root of the problem enough. When there is no crisis, I don’t think we talk enough.”

Mavuso tells me she’s optimistic about the government and its Economic Recovery and Reconstruction Plan, but says it needs to be more urgent and have timelines.

She recognises a series of “positive policy moves” such as the 51% sale of SAA and the licensing of independent power production up to 100MW.

Business, she says, is “definitely still committed to South Africa”, even after the recent conflagration. As evidence she points to the attitude of the CEOs of Foschini and Capitec, rebuilding their shops and branches in the rubble of broken township shopping malls.

“There’s a strong commitment towards rebuilding.” Rebuilding, yes, not just from the looting, but from the legacy of apartheid.

And here’s the rub on which the success of black business leaders such as Mavuso and Mohale will ultimately be judged. They admit the need for a different kind of capitalism, but don’t seem to know what to do differently.

Without new pathways, people in South Africa are left with tired mantras that focus on the need to “grow the economy” but postpone the resolution of millions of people’s current pain to the uncertain and unlikely outcomes of an ailing system.

In Mavuso’s own words, “That is a recipe for disaster.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • Their are so many ways South Africa can be a leader in so many fields. As much as the past was wrong it can’t be changed. We learn and grow from it. Chasing away investors and qualified people will only deepen the plight of the poor. The country needs to start building millions of Brick and mortar houses. Lay infrastructure creat little areas were a Primary Schools, high-school, Police Station, Sports facilities are surrounded by these houses. This will give the people pride to look after their school. Their police station. Their facilities. It will create jobs to lay and build the town. Those people will now buy things they need and some items they want creating tax to help grow the tax base.
    Imagine each province builds 500 000 plus houses split into areas that they can be proud of. A garden. A school. Build collages. I mentioned to a few people we need water security. We need to build a Mega dam to service as a storage and supply for the dry years. Again this will create jobs.
    China and the world are hungry for IRON We have billions of metric tons. Waiting to get pulled out. Before we know it it will be another lost opertunity.
    We supposed to be a rainbow nation. Stop chasing the people we need to other countries. Let’s build our country to be the land of growth. No one said forget the past. Don’t let the past ruin a great future. As that is what is currently happening.

  • I applaud her hard work and determination!

    I agree that capital simply flows like water, it’ll certainly flow differently after an exodus, expecting a mass migration once the borders open and then there’ll be a flow of people out of the country. But South Africa certainly need more people like Busi Masivo, there’ll be a lot of gaps to fill.