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Significant pitfalls loom as organised business steps into the government morass

Significant pitfalls loom as organised business steps into the government morass
President Cyril Ramaphosa on 16 December 2022. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Organised business is taking a last-ditch gamble to work with a government in which decision-making is paralysed in myriad interministerial and crisis committees, working groups and workstreams, and the not publicly accountable Operation Vulindlela and NatJoints, which brings cops, spooks and soldiers into the centre of governance.

First things first. Organised business seems to have sidestepped complicity in governance messiness – and the spectre of complicity in failure – by not actually sending its CEOs to participate in workstreams on the polycrisis of energy, logistics and crime.

Regardless of the upbeat PR optics in the afterglow of the 6 June private huddle with President Cyril Ramaphosa, that job goes to some business pundits, who’ll get their mandates from the boardroom bosses and then report back.

The CEOs responsible for their respective workstreams will, however, attend the joint strategic oversight committee with the President to touch base on priorities, problems and progress.  

That oversight committee is backed by a secretariat that brings together the directors-general of State Security, Mineral Resources, Public Enterprises, Transport and the Presidency, the SAPS national commissioner, organised business CEOs and a handful of others.

Read Daily Maverick: ‘Frustrated and anxious’ business leaders step up to help SA fix energy, transport and corruption crises

That’s the first take-out – caution over what is said and how it is said. PR does not equate to fact.

It’s the latest thing in government communications – fudge the lines for upbeat optics. A little like the Presidency statement on Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa getting his powers that, well, aren’t real powers (for instance, procurement was expressly excluded from his reach). Not that any of that has stopped the minister with expensive sartorial tastes from touring power stations and visiting various interested parties.

Exactly how the communications of this government-business cooperation are handled is contested terrain, with cautions for both sides. The ideological domestic debates that put organised business at the heart of destroying public infrastructure and the public good are dogma in many circles.

But fundamental is the take-out on the state of governance and the seeming inability of the South African government, from ministries and departments to entities, to do the work of governance without presidential direction.

That this cooperation between business and government has come after organised business met the President and some ministers in early June signals that little happens without the President’s say-so. Steeped in malicious compliance, it’s also the outcome of increasingly centralising powers in a Presidency that’s not subject to a parliamentary oversight committee.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa a step closer to a super Presidency after Ramaphosa’s master class in consolidating power 

Take what’s now called the National Logistics Crisis Committee. It arose from earlier initiatives sans presidential directive between Transnet and the Minerals Council South Africa to reset freight rail logistics. Central was the revival of the freight rail network and third-party access so miners could get product to ports and off to sales destinations. 

On 4 December 2022, the Minerals Council wrote to Transnet board chairperson Popo Molefe, calling for the dismissal of Transnet CEO Portia Derby and Transnet Freight Rail CEO Sizakele Mzimela.

‘Benefit of the doubt’

For more than 24 months, we have given the benefit of the doubt to the Transnet management team, who have aptly demonstrated, through several bizarre decisions and statements and in particular the ongoing tragic decline in the performance of Transnet, that they cannot resolve the crisis and are not capable of turning around the performance. We are insisting on the critical need for urgent change,” News24 quoted from the letter.

It seems some collaborative structures were established; in a letter to Business Day on 18 January 2023, Mzimela asked, “Let’s give them time to deliver.”   

But that track ran out in June – and a Presidency-approved business-government cooperative measure, the National Logistics Crisis Committee to also deal with port congestion and roads, has now been approved.

Meanwhile, organised agriculture, which was seemingly left in the veld, got on with the job. Citrus fruit from South Africa’s eastern regions is increasingly exported from Maputo, Mozambique.

The less said about the role of business in fighting crime and corruption, perhaps the better – although the support of organised business here dates back to the 1996 Business Against Crime South Africa initiative, and now there is the CEO-sponsored Joint Initiative to Fight Crime and Corruption.

In different, more hopeful and less abrasive times, SA Breweries boss turned SAPS CEO Meyer Kahn left frustrated in mid-1999 at the end of his two-year contract. The SAPS did away with the post. Today, much of the police is about “stamping the authority of the state” on society, according to the SAPS annual performance plan.

On the energy front, the National Energy Crisis Committee has been in place since Ramaphosa announced the National Energy Plan in July 2022. Centred on five priorities, it did not seem too much of an ask, particularly when weighed against the economic damage that persistent rolling blackouts inflicted on the economy and public trust.

But vested interests, ideological meandos and inertia hit as the creation of PR moments remained a mainstay in the electricity crisis. Most recently, the focus is on a series of megawatt additions that, like dominos, are vulnerable to collapse if just one falls.

Why not Nedlac?

It must be asked why the statutory National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), which brings together government, business, labour and community, is not the instrument of choice to forge consensus and cooperation.

Operation Vulindlela, formalised in Parliament in mid-October 2020 after months of discussions as the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan, does the heavy lifting on structural reforms.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Ramaphosa’s economic recovery plan: Mixed all-sorts, most of which we’ve seen before 

Operation Vulindlela is a joint initiative between the National Treasury and the Presidency, whose officials do not publicly account to constitutional democratic oversight structures like Parliament or the provincial legislatures. And no, putting out a progress report at a media conference isn’t being publicly accountable, it’s just spin.

NatJoints, the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure of the police, state security and defence, is also not publicly accountable. Not established in law or regulation, it nevertheless is at the centre of government decision-making – and now government and business cooperation, particularly through its energy security priority committee. 

Whose decision was it?

Given the role of NatJoints and Operation Vulindlela, and the myriad committees, councils and working groups, the record of government decision-making in South Africa’s constitutional democracy is fudged. 

Was it a minister who took her/his decision through the Cabinet approval process, from committee to full Cabinet? Or was it a crisis committee, like energy or logistics, that actually took the decision, and then left it to the minister to steer through Cabinet? Or if Cabinet collectively decided on the back of a presentation from a crisis committee, Operation Vulindlela or NatJoints, who actually would be responsible? And who would a parliamentary committee call to hold accountable, as the Constitution requires?

Will a minister appearing before Parliament fudge it because, after all, it wasn’t their decision, but that of a crisis committee, NatJoints or some other entity? If a decision is taken from the minister, who then is reduced to a bureaucratic functionary to comply with administrative Cabinet processes, can the minister be held accountable? And if those who took the decisions are neither elected nor appointed, and the entity they work in is not established in law or regulation, how are those persons accountable to the public?

It is into this that business, perhaps frustrated by the failures of previous initiatives, now steps to cooperate with the government. Even if a firewall is maintained in who does what in such an arrangement, the pitfalls are not insignificant. 

This corrosion of the record of government decision-making talks to the incapacity of the state, never mind the talk and spin on developmental state delivery. It leaves South Africa in the lurch on governance – and falls short of the country’s constitutional democracy built on the founding values of accountability, responsiveness and openness. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rainer Thiel says:

    What a depressing read!

  • Kim Webster says:

    Dead accurate! Codesa3 required.

  • Jennifer D says:

    When you are given a job without consideration of skill or inclination to work and you cannot be dismissed due to brilliant government laws; when children at university think they should pass purely because they stayed in res and not because they actually learnt how to do something, then we know the culture of entitlement is at a peak. It is this culture that has driven SA into the ground. It is time to step up to the plate, do your job properly and with pride, if you cannot, then learn how to do it or step away from the table and give it to someone who can. There is direct accountability now – you can’t blame the past forever.

  • Paul Hoffman says:

    The key issue is corruption. Besides impoverishing the coffers of the state, corruption is at the root of governmental paralysis in decision-making because protection of corrupt cadres is constantly a consideration. The first order of business is radical reform of the criminal justice administration. Anything else is no better than re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic. The leaders of business are surely aware of this truism.

    • Peter Dexter says:

      True Paul, but I believe the whole mess is symptomatic of a lack of competence, integrity and accountability at senior leadership. If section 47 (1) of the Constitution set MUCH higher standards in these areas we would have better people in parliament and therefore in cabinet. This would result in improved leadership and decision making.

      • William Stucke says:

        Yep. 47(1)(e) of the Constitution gives these criminals a “Get out of Jail Free” card because they become eligible for election again a mere 5 years after completing their sentences. How so? People purporting to represent us in Parliament should observe a much higher standard of ethics. Having once shown themselves to be dishonest, what makes you think that they have reformed?

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    I have been wondering about this so-called co-operation myself, so thank you for shining a light on it. Business is only interested in ‘fixing’ what affects their bottom line. Good luck with that, because that’s just about everything. What needs fixing is the entire State, and you can only do that if the ANC vacates. So that should have been the message from our lily-livered business leaders. Fix it, or we will not be paying you taxes anymore, for example. If the entire corporate community stand together on this, surely the government has to act? And WE have to act. We should be taking to the streets in our hundreds of thousands and show this embubbled ship of fools pretending to govern that we are not dumb and mute passengers.

    • Derek Jones says:

      The business leaders are there to salvage what they can I would guess. I agree with your sentiments on taxes. Lets face it, things are simply unacceptable so we actually are forced into radical measures. Time everyone realized that. This is why we have brains, fists and courage. We have to defend our country.

  • Stef Viljoen Viljoen says:

    I agree with Rainer. This is a big downer, especially because it is actual and accurate. As is human nature we hang in there and hope this time things will be different. I’m betting it won’t.

  • Derek Jones says:

    All is not lost, we still have a country or do we?

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    The only thing SA gov’t decided to do this year is to give arms to Putin and even fudged doing that as secretly as intended!

  • Oh Marianne. Thank you. For a change, a journalist who tells it like it is. No more rubbish about ‘the government should do this and the government should do that’! They are intellectually, ideologically and from an efficient and competency point of view, unable to run this country. Fact.
    Business (and not only Big Business), why aren’t SMEs pulled in? As an SME owner, I also want to be involved in this decision making).
    and Civil Society will fix this country. We need to get these idiots out of power. Or certainly not able or allowed to make any decisions on their own!
    @daily maverick Please can you get Big and SM business together plus OUTA, Solidariteit, DM and business friendly parties etc.
    I want to make a difference. But you are the guys who can coordinate.
    I dare you.

    • Gerrie Pretorius says:

      “They are intellectually, ideologically and from an efficient and competency point of view, unable to run this country. Fact.”Just look at the rest of Africa and all knows why!

  • Hilary Morris says:

    Pretty bloody scary article, and brings back shades of 1984, which was a pretty scary book back in the day. A cartel of the corrupt and the crooked leading a committee of the conned?

  • Divienne Conyngham says:

    I agree with Rasch that the whole State, I.e. Parliament etc al , needs fixing. If you have Ministers incapable of doing their jobs then business can talk until they’re blue in the face and nothing will be done. Not one minister nor the President is capable of making quick decisions. Everything gets pushed down to committees, commissions with no outcomes or actions, like the Zondo Commission. Our government is absolutely top heavy and the only thing they all agree on is don’t embarrass the ANC. A clean sweep is called for.

  • Iam Fedup says:

    What a mess. We are a failed state, and there is only one hope: the ANC have to go, by hook or by crook. Everything they touch is broken. Everything. When you are up to your arse in crocodiles, you have to drain the swamp. Quite frankly, even a coup d’ etat sounds attractive right now.

  • FIONA CRAIG says:

    The Sa govt is a kakistocracy,peopled by individuals suffering from severe cases of Dunning Kruger Syndrome. Unless the ANC leave the building, a la Elvis this country is doomed. Look north to see our destiny.

  • Gerrie Pretorius says:

    I believe the timing of this business intervention really sucks. It could have waited until after the elections. By that time SA would have been so gatvol of the anc that a change in government would be an actual prospect. Should business now turn around certain areas, you can be sure the anc will take credit and the voters will, once again, believe they are the only ones to govern. I wonder how much ‘business assistance’ the Western Cape requires to make things better?

    • Peter Hartley says:

      Don’t worry Gerrie, even with business input, nothing will happen before the 2024 elections. Everything has to go to committee. They will debate for months and even then, nothing meaningful will be decided. This Government is incapable of resolving the issues even with input from big business. Big business can only recommend, they have no authority to act.

  • Brian Doyle says:

    When you hand jobs to unqualified people you do not get action only excuses, and that is what the ANC does, and the people of South Africa suffer as a result

  • Peter Hartley says:

    I usually like what Marianne writes but this article is confusing and actually says nothing. I expected something more concrete, something I could take out but I’m afraid I was left wondering what was the point. Was she just trying to fill pages with copy, just to tick a box?
    Common DM, you can do better than this.

  • louis viljee says:

    Full circle? From P W Botha’s ‘Pretoria’s Praetorians’ with the State Security Council (SSC), Joint Management Centres (JMC’s) and National Security Management System (NSMS) running the system to Ramaphosa now expanding it to bring business into the fold. From control by the Security/Military establishment to purported control by kleptocrats? So much for democracy, the high hopes of CODESA, the New South Africa and the wasted 30 years of actually building a thriving democracy.

  • David Dowling says:

    If business thinks that stepping in and helping to “save the country” by helping these arrogant corrupt thieves will work, there smoking their socks. Any beneficial help or guidance will simply benefit the scoundrels in heir electioneering campaign.
    If we want to bring these thieves to their knees — STOP feeding their trough.

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