When ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and police minister Nathi Mthethwa told Nedbank chairman Reuel Khoza to stay out of politics, they were effectively saying business – and therefore the populace – should stay out of politics. They were seriously wrong.
The whole point of pre-emptive strikes is just that: they precede and eliminate the impending threat instead of plastering the breach after it’s occurred.
Perhaps someone should have pointed out this distinction to the ANC top six leadership well before their hopelessly belated press conference last week. For all the supposed political cunning with which analysts have imbued them, there isn’t much to recommend about their use of it thus far this year.
As military strikes go, last week’s conference was a rather ineffective one. It smacked of desperation, our political masters reduced to caricatures of “Comical Ali”, the Iraqi information minister who tried to tell the sniggering world, with US tanks rolling into central Baghdad in 2003: “Be assured Baghdad is safe, secure and great. My feelings – as usual – we will slaughter them all.” And like Comical Ali, the ANC’s desperation to distract from the widening chasm of its authority led to a glut of red herrings in what they put forth.
But while Ali’s mutterings were harmlessly funny, one watched the recent top-six musings with a growing sense of disquiet, even horror, the full realisation of what they were implying so totally at odds with the movement’s noble legacy of inclusive debate and dignified discourse.
For amidst the surfeit of red herrings, perhaps the biggest one was that of Gwede Mantashe’s unedifying attack on Nedbank chairman Reuel Khoza. “I will be very worried,” Mantashe said, “if the business community begins to think it has a monopoly of thinking on political leadership.” He went on to say that Mr Khoza was deflecting attention from his own failures – he was handed a mandate to sell Nedbank but twice failed to seal the deal. “He is on the wrong platform… he must talk about business.”
Later, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa waded in by criticising Khoza’s “twisted logic”, which “holds in contempt the democratic and open society” of South Africa, adding that “the good doctor[’s]… paymasters… are predominantly the beneficiaries of centuries of racist economic and political dispensations.”
In this – a small part of the entire press conference and the minister’s later remarks – one can read so much of what threatens us as a nation. Leave aside the incredible playing of the man rather than the ball in this full-frontal assault. Leave aside also the deliberate discreditation tactics which the secretary-general employed to deflect attention away from what Mr Khoza was saying by calling his capabilities as a businessman into question, a nasty piece of malice if ever there was one.
Rather, let us focus on the subtext of what Mantashe was saying. That, effectively, only the ANC has a monopoly to dare talk about the political terrain, while other branches of society have to passively listen and accept it. Politicians may venture into debating and shaping all of the political, business, labour and environmental terrain, but business and labour must stick their ugly paws out of that which does not concern them.
Actually, it does concern them a damn great deal, as it does all of us humble citizens. Khoza is an influential businessman whose business – positively or negatively, that is not the issue here – has the power to profoundly transform the lives of ordinary citizens. This by its very nature makes him a South African leader in society whose voice needs to be heard – in all aspects of the politico-economic debate.
Sixty years ago, the Nationalist government accused Harry Oppenheimer of much the same things when he dared point out that their lack of leadership was destroying the country. The continent’s most important industrialist (and once political leader through a short-lived career as a Parliamentarian) was never allowed an audience with a sitting Nationalist leader, and summarily told to stick to business and not venture into the political terrain. Get back in your box, they effectively told him, and by the way… be quiet about your business credentials, because your policies stink of imperialist plunder. “Imperialist plunder” – the same phrase with which minister Mthethwa tried to impale Mr Khoza.
If anything, South Africa needs more contributions from business in shaping our political society, not less. Indeed, as Ann Bernstein points out in her book The Case for Business in Developing Economies, business has historically shied away from its very legitimate right to push forward the socio-economic debate. But business leaders need to locate business as part of the civil world, outside the state but intimately engaged with rules and regulations established by governments, and operating in an environment shaped by national politics, policies and culture. It is for this reason that Khoza’s voice, added to Absa’s outgoing chairman Gareth Griffith’s one, is such a clarion call for more outspokenness.
But the call, in firm rebuttal of Mantashe’s stance, is actually directed to all of us as citizens. Before the teeming mass of ordinary rank-and-file South Africans is ordered not to enter any debate on the political leadership in this country, let me say this to Mantashe and to his colleagues: the political landscape is not your exclusive terrain. It belongs to all of us. That is why we are a democracy. DM
Kalim Rajab is a director of the New National Assurance Company, SA's largest empowered insurance company. He previously worked in the diamond industry, and was educated at UCT and Oxford. He writes in his personal capacity about SA, current events, film appreciation and culture. Catch him on twitter at @kalimrajab
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall