Business Maverick


After the Bell: The true limits of business-government cooperation

After the Bell: The true limits of business-government cooperation
The Johannesburg CBD. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Let me tell you the truth, if I may. The way the government looks at business is as a bargaining chip, not as an ally. It sees business as one of the forces in society that it has to traduce.

A long time ago, when I was editor of the Financial Mail (FM), I was invited to have lunch with the senior members of Business Leadership SA. You wouldn’t have imagined anything more convivial; the big business organisation and the editor of a financial magazine, sharing jokes, insights, gossip and pleasantries. I remember the venue was somewhere in Upper Houghton, on part of the old Oppenheimer estate. There were peacocks in the garden.

We ended up having a furious row. The meeting was odd because usually these things are very back-slapping off-the-record affairs. But this time, my cohort and I were sworn to secrecy and had to make an undertaking to not publish the contents of the meeting. I presume the statute of limitations frees me now, a decade later, from that obligation, but I’ll refrain from mentioning who was there.

The peculiar circumstances of the meeting, I realised in retrospect, was because the FM had just published an edition with then president Jacob Zuma’s face on the cover under the headline, “Be afraid. Be very afraid”. It was punchy; the kind of headline that set the FM apart, presciently as it happens.

But clearly, the cover hadn’t gone down too well at Business Leadership SA, and my colleague and I were given a dressing down for being, you know, uncooperative, superficial and embarrassing. In other words, journalists. This all took place in the early part of Zuma’s second term. We were told very emphatically that business was working “behind the scenes” to improve the situation, and that this effort was bearing fruit. Please, was the implicit cry, go easier on poor Zuma.

Well, in short, we disagreed, and the meeting broke up unpleasantly. I remember saying, or at least thinking, if Business Leadership SA believes that business in SA endorses an uncritical view of the Zuma administration, then they don’t understand the zeitgeist of the moment. They are just not reading the room. They are just would-be politicians presenting as people who represent business.

Fast-forward a decade. A total of 115 CEOs of SA’s top companies have pledged their support for a business-led initiative to assist the government in getting the economy back on track and fixing the country’s energy, logistics and security problems.

What can you say? This is transparently a worthwhile initiative. The CEOs are basically the leaders of almost every major corporation in SA. Collectively, these bosses command more than R11-trillion in market value and their companies employ more than 1.2 million people. It would be hard to imagine a greater need for an “all hands on deck” call than now, other than of course, during Covid. That is not an accident, because this initiative really arises out of the joint work by business and government to see off the coronavirus threat.

But the “pledge” is the most inane stuff you have ever read. The first part of the pledge reads:

“As South African business leaders, we firmly believe in the immense potential of our country. We are committed to building it and have come together to address the current challenges to achieve sustainable, inclusive economic growth. Through strategic partnerships and focused interventions, we have the power to make a significant and positive impact on our nation, creating hope for all South Africans. We are resolutely committed to being a force for good.”

Now, I know that the CEOs of SA are not that naïve. They know that SA’s government is obviously, transparently, on the wrong track, not only from their own perspective, but objectively. And yet, for some reason, they believe the way to fix this is to get involved, advise, cajole and add expertise where possible. It’s sweet. It is the natural instinct of all great businesspeople, and SA has plenty, to be practical and to think about concrete interventions that could actually help. What is bad about that?

I also know it is much, much easier to sit on the outside and criticise, particularly when you don’t have thousands of employees looking up at you. Business in SA has very little option but to try and make the country work.

But here is the thing, and it’s an important thing: negotiations only work if you can convince your interlocutor that you are prepared to walk away. If you can’t do that, you are not negotiating, you are posturing. It’s a tough thing, but it is the absolute sine qua non of successful negotiations. Business in SA is failing to convince anyone, least of all itself, that its involvement is conditional. My sense is that although SA’s business leaders feel they are doing the right thing, to ordinary people they are unconvincing, they seem insincere, and they may be inadvertently underlining the feeling that the South African elite is simply out of touch. 

Let me tell you the truth, if I may. The way the government looks at business is as a bargaining chip, not as an ally. It sees business as one of the forces in society that it has to traduce. It’s happy to allow business to make practical interventions so long as it can take the credit and doing so will side-step the need to change its approach to governing. Hence, the welcomes, the smiling faces, and pats on the back. And the peacocks in the garden.

But if business assumes that the creation of goodwill alone will convince this government to take a different path, it is sorely lacking in any smidgen of analytical nous. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • mark.etable15 says:

    Tim is quite correct with his assertion that the approach of the business sector with government is mis-guided.
    The involvement of the business sector should be strictly conditional to government making much-needed changes to policy along with the dismissal of incompetent ministers and cadres.
    Business risks making contributions that will benefit government ( ANC ) and for which the latter will take credit bolstering their chances of election victory in 2024.
    This is an ideal opportunity to draw a line in the sand and demand what the country really needs.

  • David Walker says:

    This analysis is spot on. The ANC hates business but loves the baubles that business produces. Therefore it wants help from business to keep the economy limping along so it can continue to steal the fruits of enterprise, and dispense patronage to stay in power.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    Right on the money! Business leaders seem to have no understanding of the relationship between Political and Economic institutions in a democratic society. Maybe the Business Schools need to introduce a new course.

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