After the Bell: Phase 3 of business’s tortured relationship with the ANC — hostility
We are seeing further signs now that businesspeople are actively wondering whether the ANC, as an institution, is capable of delivering change, or even changing itself.
It was one of those off-hand statements that could easily be misinterpreted. Investec’s group CEO, Fani Titi, said South Africans should use next year’s elections to vote out “useless” politicians who have failed to prioritise jobs and drive investment, choosing leaders instead who will get the struggling economy back on track.
It sounds like he was, or might have been, encouraging South Africans to vote against the ANC, but I don’t think that is quite what he meant. It was more that he was encouraging South Africans to vote in favour of more effective politicians generically. Speaking at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, he did say that for business to operate effectively, “you have to have a half-decent government and I don’t think at the moment we are anywhere close”.
That is a pretty specific indictment against the ANC, and to me, it reflects a broader movement in business to get off the fence.
The spectrum, of course, is pretty wide. But compare Titi’s comments with Discovery CEO Adrian Gore’s comments, made in March. Gore said he was not in favour of “blind optimism” but complained about an “optimism stigma”, especially in South Africa.
“People believe that if they are pessimistic, they are prudent and thinking critically, and will somehow call out decline and failure. If optimistic, they believe they will somehow tolerate the unacceptable. This is not the case.”
This was followed up in July by a pledge by 115 of SA’s top CEOs to assist the government with initiatives to fix several problems, notably Eskom’s power provision and the unacceptably high crime rate.
I wrote then and still believe that this petition was signed as much in frustration as from a genuine desire to help. But we are seeing further signs now that businesspeople are actively wondering whether the ANC, as an institution, is capable of delivering change, or even changing itself.
The issue, I suspect, isn’t that President Cyril Ramaphosa doesn’t see the problems, or even that he wouldn’t change them if he could. I suspect it is more that if even Ramaphosa is demonstrably unable to shift the ANC’s policies, then who can? If the ANC has become so sclerotic and entrenched in its ways that it cannot change, then we have a different kind of problem, because we cannot go on with a 1% annual economic growth rate for much longer.
Another indication is strong support in some business circles for the presidential bid of former FirstRand chairperson Roger Jardine. At first blush, Jardine’s bid seems like a long shot. He’s an established old-school anti-apartheid figure with a great reputation, but in all honesty, his name recognition is insubstantial and he has no electoral base in regional or national politics to speak of.
But the idea is perhaps not necessarily for Jardine to build a party that will, in the space of less than a year, sweep the boards and gather sufficient votes to oust the ANC. If I am reading the situation correctly, the idea is that Jardine will emerge, partly with the support of some ANC veterans, as a unifying figure who might be able to lead the Multi-Party Charter if the cookie crumbles a certain way. And even if it doesn’t crumble that way, the idea is to strengthen the middle ground in SA.
The big loser would be the DA’s John Steenhuisen, who as leader of the biggest party in the Multi-Party Charter for SA might expect to steer the group. But Steenhuisen is viewed as a representative of a rightward pivot within the DA; whether he is or not, I’m not sure. For that reason and others (including the concern that smaller parties in the group might have about DA “dominance”), Steenhuisen probably cannot lead the movement, to the extent that it actually exists. An outsider with some street cred would definitely be a plus.
But the larger point is this: in the early post-apartheid period, business considered its role as primarily supportive not only of the ANC but of politics in general, basically to try to ensure that democracy took hold. Several very large companies donated pro rata to the ANC and the DA, and sometimes other parties too.
During the Zuma period, business largely withdrew from politics, except for the emerging tenderpreneur class which of course was intimately involved in any government contract which even vaguely wriggled. Still, business as a whole grew increasingly concerned and critical. But, at root, what business considered feasible was new ANC leadership, which is eventually what they got.
What we are seeing now is what might be called Phase 3, in which some parts of business are actively working in support of the government in the hopes of bringing about change. But, for the first time, there is also a significant cohort of business actively working to oust the ANC, which they consider incapable of effecting real internal change.
Trust me, even though it’s not large, that is a noteworthy turning of the tide. DM