South Africa


Zuma, Ramaphosa, Mashatile: SA Business must finally accept the problem is the ANC itself

Zuma, Ramaphosa, Mashatile: SA Business must finally accept the problem is the ANC itself
From left: Former South African president Jacob Zuma. (EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook) | Deputy President Paul Mashatile. (Photo: Leon Sadiki / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | President Cyril Ramaphosa (EPA-EFE / Oleg Petrasyuk)

Some 115 CEOs are reported to have signed a pledge to help fix the government. Will this initiative make a difference by addressing the country’s fundamental challenges? Or will it be another pre-election press release that does little to change things, except improve the ANC’s chances of being re-elected?

During Thabo Mbeki’s time at the top, there was a rumble in business circles for a president less “aloof”. Jacob Zuma was welcomed in some quarters as a more “hands-on” executive, more connected with the people’s concerns, who would let those around him get on with the job. Business Unity SA (Busa) CEO Jerry Vilakazi said at the time: “We are pleased that the election of Mr Zuma creates certainty for the markets as to who is likely to lead the country in 2009.”

Remarkably, no concern was expressed at Zuma’s record of corrupt relationships following the jailing of his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik. Judge Hilary Squires mentioned Zuma 474 times in the publicly televised judgment, leading to the inescapable conclusion that Zuma had received bribes in exchange for using his influence, something for which he is still on trial, some 18 years later.

Vilikazi spoke instead of “the challenges that lie ahead”, which he defined as “unemployment and poverty”. The inescapable conclusion is that organised business thought it could do business with Zuma, moral quibbles aside.

Such optimism proved wishful thinking as Zuma emerged as less “hands-on” than “hands-in” (the till). Among the few who called it right at the time, Helen Zille stood out. Of the so-called “people’s person”, the DA leader warned: “This is a dismal day, not only for the ANC but for South Africa. It is an indictment on the ruling party that they could find no better candidate than Jacob Zuma to lead them.

“The Polokwane conference has also exposed many of Zuma’s supporters as unruly and ill-disciplined populists who cannot observe the basic norms of decent, democratic behaviour. These are the people to whom Zuma owes his election as ANC president and he will have to return the favour. He will be accountable to them.”

Only once civil society, the courts and the public at large turned on Zuma over his brazen State Capture project, did business finally find its voice. It took the 2017 firing of Pravin Gordhan as finance minister and his replacement by Malusi Gigaba to elicit a statement by the then Busa president, Jabu Mabuza, that the timing of the decision (note: the “timing”, not the decision itself) was “unfortunate”. He hastily added that business respected the president’s prerogative and intended to work with the new ministers. 

You could almost see the hands wringing.

Inevitably, Cyril Ramaphosa was welcomed as signalling the end of the chaos and corruption of the Zuma years, as a person who would understand what business wanted and needed, since he was from business — never mind the outstanding fact that he had made his money from his political connections.

And his pandering to the radical factions was seen as a means to keep the party together, keeping all sides, left and right, in the tent. “Radical economic transformation is, in essence, about building a more equal society through sustained inclusive growth,” explained Ramaphosa in 2017.  On taking over the presidency in February 2018, he said, “A new dawn is upon us and a wonderful dawn has arrived.” This proved to be a false start, in spite of the positive affirmation of the business community.

Among Ramaphosa’s strategies was the embracing of an EFF initiative to amend the Constitution to introduce unchecked land expropriation by the government, a move which eventually failed when the ANC and EFF could not agree on exactly how to parcel out the proceeds of this action.

Business confidence, which rose sharply on his taking over to register 45 on the RMB/BER Index, had fallen to just 36 in the first quarter of 2023. This index, which was overall higher during the Zuma than the Ramaphosa presidency so far, has barely been in positive territory — a score of over 50 — since 2008.

And now, we are told by some that Paul Mashatile is more decisive than the incumbent and will be the change that South Africa needs.

‘Perilous lunges and blunders’

What if the problem is business itself, at least those elements which view South Africa through a celebrationist lens? The problem is that business never found a government it didn’t like, and refuses to believe in the worth of change, just as it largely — with a few exceptions — was never in the vanguard of political change under apartheid until very late in the day.

Now, of course, it’s hard to find a businessperson from that era who was not a clandestine insurgent. Moral weakness plays out this way in the political theatre. When awful decisions are made they are excused as sophisticated manoeuvring to achieve some higher objective at an unspecified future date.

In Max Hastings’ excellent book Abyss, which describes the conditions which led to and the approach which ultimately resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the veteran journalist makes the following insight into the failure of US policymakers who wanted to believe that Nikita Khrushchev was actually a brake on Soviet radicalism:

“That group of clever, puzzled Americans felt driven to a conclusion — a false conclusion — that Khrushchev was struggling against foes inside the Kremlin; that the latest proposal superseded the earlier one, because the Soviet leader had been obliged by Presidium comrades to make it. They could not grasp the reality, that Khrushchev was floundering in a morass of his own creation…”.

Both sides had made mistakes in the process of politics that had led to the crisis, what Hastings describes as their “share of perilous lunges and blunders”. In the Soviet camp, this included the “failed strangulation” of West Berlin in 1948-49, the June 1950 North Korean invasion of the South, and the 1956 Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Uprising. Hubris towards China over Korea, the various state-sponsored coups in Latin America and the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion along with the start of the “long Vietnam agony” all fall into the US side of the ledger.

But while explaining why the two sides got to the missile crisis, these failures did not limit US President John F Kennedy’s options. On the contrary, the crisis illustrated just how pusillanimity could simply have emboldened Soviet aggression. Ultimately, Kennedy opted not for invasion or bombing, but a quarantine, which signalled a line that should not be crossed, while de-escalating the military stand-off. 

Being a prisoner of the past provides the perfect excuse for inaction and the tolerance of blatant transgressions.

Mistakes continue to be made

In the same vein, blunders exist on both sides of the South African business-government divide.

And mistakes continue to be made. The recently-announced “compact” between the CEOs of large South African companies and government departments is put forward as a necessary approach to tackle the country’s energy, crime and logistics challenges.  

The head of Business Leadership SA said of the announcement of this business-government partnership: “This is the beginning of a journey that government and business will walk together. The issues South Africa must deal with are deep and will require serious commitment from both sides. It must be focused on action and not political expediency.”

Appropriate public bodies have been lined up to partner with private sector agencies for each stream. The National Energy Crisis Committee, National Logistics Crisis Committee and Joint Initiative to Fight Crime and Corruption will be the main vehicles for government engagement. This process will also draw on officials from different government departments, Operation Vulindlela and, in the crime workstream, the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure. Each workstream is to be assisted by various organised business structures. 

There will be no lack of spinning plates and full diaries. But to what end?

As its electoral fortunes slide, the ANC continues to avoid grasping the nettle and reforming its vast, bungling state-owned enterprises. It is obvious that it needs to bring in the private sector. But instead of seeking desperately needed private sector investment, it is asking for charity.

Business has fallen for a political chimera. It will help the ANC shore up public enterprises ahead of next year’s election and then, its services no longer needed, watch aghast when the next government (likely to be formed by the ANC or an ANC coalition) brings out the lash with a new raft of populist policies.

Democracy Down: Ramaphosa’s proposed State Security vetting of NGOs an onslaught on SA’s future

This process presumes that government is merely incompetent, but still honest. Yet as Chief Justice Raymond Zondo makes clear, there is a web of criminal activity networked into the African National Congress. The heart of the problem is not technical, as the businesses’ various workstreams essentially argue, but political. Only political change can change this for the better, just as apartheid could not be reformed through technical inputs. 

To think otherwise is delusional, a circus of falsehoods. No amount of frantic activity, earnest think-pieces, consultation and committees, workstreams or public fluency is a substitute for the reforms necessary. Without real skin in the game, business knows it is just playing a game as its least bright (who draw the short straw at HQ) are sent into the vast labyrinth of meetings, meetings about meetings, task teams, and the like, to fight the hydra of corruption which never shows its face.

Palace intrigue, embedded placement, and poise and polish do not stack with the task of strategic change and leadership.

Solving the South African failure to reform thus does not require more institutions, or more institutions working in harness with one another. It demands answering the question: Why does the government not reform when the problems are clear? Is this because it lacks the ability to problem-solve and to execute solutions; or is there a different, deeper malaise in that, even when clear policy decisions are made, there is a reluctance in the bureaucracy and within state-owned enterprises to execute decisions to bring in private partners, because of vested financial interests, in that this dilutes the rents that accrue to the politically connected?

The problem is politics. The problem with Zuma, Ramaphosa and, probably, Mashatile, is that their politics have been learnt from within the ANC. Until that changes, South Africa will remain stuck, despite — and indeed because of — the thinking of business. DM

Greg Mills and Ray Hartley are with The Brenthurst Foundation


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Geoff Holmes says:

    Spot on. The ANC has evolved into a gigantic parasite feeding off the public purse. No meaningful improvement to the lot of the general populace will take place until a different government is in the Union Buildings.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Excellent piece!! No matter how much business steps in to assist government to right the ship, all it is doing is propping up a criminal, lecherous and predatory syndicate. As soon as they have served their purpose they will be spat out and turned upon as history has shown. One must ask, why are we doing government’s job as they steal and misappropriate our taxes, rates, license fees etc. like for example when the residents fix their potholes in their suburbs etc. I understand the SA psyche of being gatvol and resilient, and wanting to assist and take charge in solving problems that affect us, but it will all lead to huge disappointment. Business needs to not be so naive and stand firm – demand real changes that are implemented and measurable. Of course the best solution is to vote these anc thieves and scoundrels out of power.

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      No coalition will be strong enough to oust the ANC ( and possible EFF coalition) and certainly no one political party can unseat their majority. Perhaps Corné Mulder has the right idea with a new United Democratic Front where individual parties retain their core mandate but unite under a common brand to diminish the ANC ( and possible EFF coalition) it would certainly curtail the tender fraud and diminish politically connected corruption!

      • A Concerned Citizen says:

        The closest any coalition will come is the DA-led ‘Moonshot Pact’. Current polls indicate that the current group of parties is within a single-digit margin of the ANC. Further scandals and failures by the ANC leading up to the elections next year will hopefully turn that around.

  • Trevor Pope says:

    Well said!

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    As long as BEE policies exist, all South Africans will be held to ransom – the taxpayer will continue to be robbed and the poorest of the poor will continue to suffer.
    The first thing Biz SA should do is reject the law requiring forced Black Empowerment – this is a Democracy, everyone is apparently equal so why encourage laws that are racist and no better than under Apartheid? If people are incapable of doing their jobs, they should not have them – this cycle of under performance due to incompetence is ruining our economy, discouraging investment and encouraging the emigration of capable South Africans to fairer shores!

  • Change is good sa says:

    Our vote is our power. We should be spending energy and words on the page to convince young South Africans that their vote is their power that will change their futures.

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      Young South Africans without jobs are not interested in the future and voting – they have no skin in the game so why should they even try! Until there is a concerted effort by the ruling party to find a solution ( that does not involve robbing the taxpayer ) to create initiatives and encourage real investment that will beget jobs, we might as well accept that voting won’t change a thing. An old idea along the lines of conscription for school leavers to learn skills in a protected environment ( agriculture, electricians, plumbers, builders, first aid, nursing, security etc) where they learn discipline,respect and are paid a stipend with the chance of a certificate and internship at the end of the 1 or 2 years would be a great place to start. We did it with the Army under the old government, we can do it for Civil Society under this one!
      And by the way BEE is not the answer – it just leads to jobs for pals, corruption and a false level of entitlement without the skills to do the job. We’ve had 30 years to get this right – insanity is when you persist with something that does not work expecting a different result! BEE policies have had their day, they are divisive and racist and don’t have a place in a true Democracy.

  • Gordon Pascoe says:

    “there is a reluctance in the bureaucracy and within state-owned enterprises to execute decisions to bring in private partners, because of vested financial interests, in that this dilutes the rents that accrue to the politically connected”.

    Exactly. I would further argue that leading by examples set by corrupt officials exposed by Zondo and elsewhere, and judging by the constant flow of reports emerging every day, evidence may well reveal one day that lower ranking individuals within a broad spectrum of government and municipalities are increasingly motivated to participate in the feeding frenzy.

    If this is true, as their numbers grow it will be almost impossible to stop these bottom-feeders as they take brazen courage from the lack of willingness by the government to prosecute the higher-ranking officials, all fully exposed. Of greater concern is the lack of steps to recover the stolen billions, if not trillions whittled away as time is allowed to pass at a leisurely pace.

    It is unlikely that the full extent of ongoing corruption is known but one thing is certain, it is growing as it broadens.

  • Mark Gory Gory says:

    Well written

  • rodhering says:

    So the rapacios and immoral business leaders are helping to re arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. This will simply be turned into good PR for the ANC and help them in the elections next year. If these muppets had any sense of what was good for the country they would be working to actively destroy the ANC, but none of them have the balls. Evidence by so many of them claiming they were secretly working against the government prior to 1994. What a load of bollocks

  • etienne van den heever says:

    Agreed with Messrs Mills & Hartley
    Laudable though business’ support may be, look at what has happened with Insurers’ attempt to take on mending potholes in Jozi: The corrupt and inept CoJ’s JRA simply laughs that they now don’t have to do their job properly (or at all) – as the private sector is doing it for them.
    Don’t ignore the fact that the ANC has greed and criminality firmly embedded in their DNA

  • Sam van Coller says:

    Excellent article. It is not business’ function to get into bed with a government that ‘eats’ the economic surplus that business alone generates. Partnerships on joint public-private ventures are different from helping government try to patch up a mess. It is also legitimate and appropriate for business, given its critical role of prime national economic surplus generator, to make representations to government on areas that are hampering it – the business environment, failure of the public service, education and skills development to ensure a flow of skills needed in the 21st Century, public and goods transport, health care, public housing, corruption, state -owned enterprises. All of these have a direct bearing on business and their employees. Representations need to be professional and forward looking so that Government is pressured to recognize where business, as the prime generator of tax revenue – even individual income tax actually comes from business – stands. This is not playing party politics; it is looking after the economic interests of the country. In this way they will start to address the serious flaws in current government strategy.

  • colstoncam says:

    100%, the sycophants of the business world will be drawn into the web of useless meetings and fat lunches. No doubt represented by their HR departments who have grown overly powerful on the back of BBBEE and Labour Law policies.
    Business needs to oppose and speak out against these useless incompetent leaches and not cosy up with them.

  • Hilary Morris says:

    What a brilliant analysis – and such a depressingly accurate read of our situation. Wishful thinking has long been a substitute for action, it’s easier, requires much less effort and makes us all feel good. How tragic it is that there is not a clear political alternative in sight. Egocentric needs ensure that this is the case. A multi-hued couple of Mandelas would come in handy round about now. Just to put the country first.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Sam – common sense versus failed ideology! There has to be a will from government to be open and address the serious flaws in their strategy. After 39 years, where is it? Do you honestly believe that there is any serious chance of that when you have arrogant, miserable and highly flawed communist dinosaurs in leading positions clinging to that miserable failed and cursed dogma? The Mantashe’s, Patel’s, NDZ’s etc. of our world and who worship at the door of the diabolical Putin and are grossly unfit for purpose in running a modern economy. This mob is so wayward and stuck in the past out of exceptional stupidity, idiotic loyalty and staggering myopia. This country will only ever move forward once this abominable, criminal and treasonous anc are booted out of power. They will only abuse business and use it grudgingly when it suits them.

  • Gazeley Walker says:

    Business should step back and let the ANC fail, which, without the support of big business, is a very likely prospect. Some might see this move by business as being an acceptance that graft and corruption is the only way they can survive. Feed the politicians and grow profits.
    Business should be opposing many of the ANC ventures, and openly challenging them to improve governance within the ruling party. If big business stood together, all 115 of the CEO’s involved in this “partnership” and said to the ANC ” we will not comply with your latest BEE requirements, we are committed to transformation, but we will not support an apartheid style law that is unjust, unfair and unsustainable. We will support transformation that is fair and equitable and does not allow for government officials to dictate how we run our business.” In short big business must grow some brass balls and stand up, forthrightly, to injustice.

    • Anne De Wet says:

      This is a very well thought out strategy – assisting the corrupt ANC to cover up their draconian labour laws including BEEE is only window dressing! The ANC should be left to fail more dismally than it is now and not be assisted along their present course. Bring back the old apprentice systems offered by the likes of Iscor, Dorman Long etc. to train artisans instead of funding them to study at universities to obtain degrees for which there are no jobs! In any event, which businesses have entered into any agreement to ‘assist’ the government to feed off the fat of the land more greedily than in the past?

  • Brian Doyle says:

    Unfortunately this initiative is assisting the Incompetent and corrupt ANC to say they are doing things to improve the problems the country is going through, while not doing anything themselves or getting rid of the corrupt persons in the ANC

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    Right on the button gentlemen!
    This business support will simply give credibility to the monster as it prepares to hoodwink their voters into believing that business approves of them and then runs an election campaign which misleads their voters to vote ANC, condemning them to another four years of continued degradation of the state of the country.
    What has business to gain?
    They see the mess and then hop into bed with a useless President and his henchmen.
    Why oh why?

  • Ivan van Heerden says:

    Big Business in country can barely pause to unlock their lips from the ANC and BBEEE’s giant appendage to take a breath let alone do anything about forcing a change. Business has no interest in stopping race based workplace legislation. Neither do they care about percentage ownership as it all comes back in government tenders and bank loans. It is disgusting, immoral and speaks volumes to the CEO’s sitting on their horse/wine estates bemoaning the state of the country.

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