Opinionista Wayne Duvenage 5 January 2016

Will SA business leadership finally stand up in 2016?

The last month's exasperation suggested the Zuma wrecking ball had gone too far, as billions of rands were obliterated from SA’s balance sheet. But a few weeks on, oh my, how the tsunami waters have settled.

A month ago, on 10th December 2015, South Africa woke up to a nightmare of unimaginable proportion. Our country’s President, Jacob Zuma, took upon himself to sack a sane person in a very influential position. Nhlanhla Nene, our solid Minister of Finance of 17 months was gone at the stroke of one man’s pen. Thank goodness, a team of sanity-seekers (yes, some of them from big business) managed to convince our President to do something before the markets opened on Monday. With the nation still reeling from a few days of political buffoonery, the ANC’s Jessie Duarte added some icing to the cake with her “these are signs of Zuma’s good leadership” damage control speech.

To Jessie Duarte: Just so you know, a good leader would not have removed a damn fine Finance Minister in the first place, especially on the back of a recent credit rating downgrade. Then again, I guess we should not simply assume our numb(erless) President is in tune with the fact that our nation’s credit ratings had recently edged precariously closer to junk pile. It is no surprise that the nation did not buy Duarte’s explanation that President Zuma showed the world he was “willing to listen… and that [by doing so] he demonstrated bold leadership.”

For the past three years, the people in Gauteng and the investment community (through failed Sanral bond auctions) have long denounced the irrational Gauteng e-toll scheme, so much so that 91% of road users are in active civil defiance thereof. Has our President displayed any listening skills in this regard Ms Duarte? Zero, unfortunately. The only listening he does, is when it suits him or his party to do so.

The sacking of any minister of significant influence is serious a political decision that would never normally be undertaken without circumspect assessment of the potential fall-out. But ours is not a normal state of affairs, evidenced by regular leadership decisions that take us further down the ladder of competitiveness and prosperity, each passing year. Rung by rung, we submerge our already numbed mindsets into the cesspool of Banana Republicdom, becoming more blinkered as we alter our business targets and lifestyles to meet the declining returns of our nation’s tax spend. Our olfactory senses adjusting to the growing stench of the bull that our government throws at us, with Zuma’s last debacle in 2015 being the smelliest of them all, by far.

The last month’s exasperation suggested the Zuma wrecking-ball had gone too far, as billions of rands were obliterated from SA’s balance sheet. But a few weeks on, oh my, how the tsunami waters have settled. Big business who was relatively quiet at the time, will remain true to their unobtrusive characteristic, and simply return to the grind at the start of a new year. With targets already adjusted lower, corporate SA will moan behind closed boardroom doors, and move forward to maximise their profits for another year.

Imagine if, a decade ago, someone could have predicted the current state of the nation to Business SA, what would they have said or done? Scoffs of disbelief would have sprung forth at any idea of the rand being almost three time weaker than its 2005 levels (of R6,38 to the US$). They would not have believed the declining monthly balance of trade – regularly hitting the minus R20bn mark – or that our Gross Domestic Product growth would decline to below 1,5%. They would have derided the thought that our mining industry would be in turmoil at around 6% contribution to GDP. Or heaven forbid, that our country’s credit rating would be a notch above junk status.

Let me stop there, for it’s a long list.

Yet in the here and now, with all the charts and graphs of recent history painting this painfully clear picture, we have become numb to the fact that all this turbulence and decimation has not been a result of the world’s economy steaming ahead of us, or some external forces of bad luck. It’s largely because of one man who has been allowed to singlehandedly, and with all his jolly impulsiveness, significantly trash our country’s prosperity. Yes, one innumerate head of state who has less regard for the nation’s well-being, while placing his own extractive party’s fortunes ahead of the country’s.

I think that big business leaders of a decade ago would have said, “Never. Big business will never allow such a situation to develop”? Well, they did allow it, and I single out big business, for it is they who collect and transfer (to Treasury) the bulk of tax revenues, PAYE, VAT, Company taxes, Excise Duties, Levies, etc. It is they who are organised and meet. It is in effect, this “handful” of business leaders at the apex of a number of the country’s largest organisations, that have the greatest ability to swing a hard bat at the wasteful beast.

Their predecessors displayed the necessary courage in 1985, when big business was more in touch with the structural problems of an economy run on apartheid principles, by defying their Government of the day who ordered them not to meet with the ANC. They were at the forefront of moves to dismantle the irrational structures and laws that supported a short-sighted ideology. They realised, then, that the nation’s prosperity was threatened by its philosophies and strategies that were out of touch with good common sense. It was a ballsy business leadership back then, with courage and a vision to stand up for a better future.

Yes, the difference today is that we have a democratically elected Government in place. But our current sickly state of affairs is inflicted by our Government of the day, represented by the brazen and often open squandering by greedy and inept politicians who regularly amend regulations and allow senseless decisions to be implemented, despite the loud outcries emanating from society. Their behaviour costs the country billions in lost revenues, diminishing growth opportunities and increasing poverty – every month. The ongoing collapse of virtually each and every state owned entity is there for all to see, given that if they were run on simple, sound business principles, they would be prosperous and successful. Instead, they have become political pawns for the savaging and redirecting of tax-payers money to squander on party-aligned businesses and connected individuals.

The end of December 2015 was an opportune time, if there ever was one, for business leadership to step out of their comfortable shadows. Yes, the letter signed by a collective of business leaders, labour and civil society members was a welcome, but faint cry. What was missing were strong messages and requests for accountability from Business Leadership South Africa, Business Unity SA, Business Against Crime, Chamber of Mines, NAAMSA, FEDHASA, SAIA, BASA….

The silence has been deafening.

And sadly, big business will remain silent (please let me be wrong) when Mr Gordhan announces substantial “necessary” tax increases in around seven weeks time (hopefully he will still be in place). What big business should be demanding, is to fetch the much needed new revenue by slashing Government’s unnecessary and wasteful expenditure, before tax increases are applied. And a serious display of effective action to halt corruption. They should ask that all irrational, ineffective and wasteful taxes (Redisa’s tyre recycling tax, e-Tolls etc) are halted. That transparent and thorough scrutiny of Government’s Nuclear and Carbon Tax plans are undertaken. That no more SAA bail-outs take place. Again, list is long.

Will 2016 be the year that power shifts away from the politicians and into the hands of civil society? The students #FeesMustFall one-week campaign was a classic example of this, just as the two year long e-Toll civil disobedience campaign has been. If sanity does not prevail, there will be more to come.

Will the citizens, civil society and politicians of 2016 bring a showdown at the opening of Parliament, both in and outside the gates? Will the expected soaring food prices push the poverty stricken masses to the end of their tether? Will the local elections be the trigger for sanity and real change within the ruling party, enough to push them to assist their fallen leader to step down?

This year could bring a turmoil that could get out of control, pitting citizens against the state, with horrific potential consequences. Which is why we need a concerted effort by business leadership with balls to intervene, and fast, so 2016 is not just another year of the Zuma-Wrecking-Ball as he carves another damaging swathe though our economic morass, thrusting us into “status: junk”, while billions of potential investment rands leave our shores for more stable environments.

The ball is squarely in your court, Business Leaders of South Africa. Do something, or be held responsible for your silence. For as long as you remain silent, the political elite will squander on. Your nation’s people, your employees, are getting restless. DM

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