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In loco parentis: The role business can and should play in building South Africa amid the chaos


Mike Abel is a leading marketing and advertising practitioner. He is Founder & Chief Executive of M&Saatchi Abel and M&C Saatchi Group of companies operating in SA. He is former CEO of M&C Saatchi Group, Australia and before that, co-led the Ogilvy South Africa Group as COO and Group Managing Director, Cape Town. Mike has been awarded Advertising Leader by the Financial Mail and Finweek and his company was named Best Agency in SA in 2015. His company is home to The Street Store, the open-source, pop-up clothing store for the homeless which has become a global movement. He is a speaker and writer.

If it is going to be “business unusual” for South Africa in solving these problems, we need to think differently about potential solutions.

The other week, when sitting on a panel at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering – Media Edition, Bruce Whitfield asked us (myself, Sipho Pityana, Wendy Appelbaum and Styli Charalambous) what business could be doing more of to help our country.

I have, to an extent, touched on this subject in previous articles, as it’s something I think a lot about, but I’ve been giving it additional thought since Bruce asked it so plainly, in the hope of coming up with useful ideas and suggestions.

Which brings me to a rather strange question, given the context:

Do you recall a movie moment, when Jodie Foster stands on the opposite side of a glass wall to an incarcerated Anthony Hopkins and he says, “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti?” And then he makes this awful, taste-savouring, sucking-in sound.

That was 26 years ago, and indeed, it was The Silence of the Lambs.

The reason this moment created lasting impact was because every detail of the scene had been thought through to the nth degree and was purposefully portrayed in a way that was the opposite of the obvious.

The serial killer was an urbane, middle-aged doctor and intellectual. The FBI agent, a seemingly fragile “all-American girl next door”. There were no prison bars, but a transparent sheet of glass, separating them.

Director Jonathan Demme understood that by not playing to the stereotype, he would create a far more chilling and memorable scene.

It was executed with sharpness, intensity, and absolute simplicity.

In business and the communication thereof, for any powerful initiative or message to cut through today, with all the abundant clutter out there, it needs this level of focus, clarity and most vitally, executional flair.

As business, now wanting and needing to make a difference and contribute more, we need to think similarly to Demme, in terms of what we do and how we do it, so that we focus very specifically and determinedly on our individual and company strengths, logical initiatives and relevant contributions in rebuilding South Africa – which are not flash in the pan, but can drive sustainable change and achieve meaningful impact.

Low hanging fruit: In order to help, one needs to be clear about where help is needed and then where one can help tangibly and realistically. At first glance, the answer would be – everywhere.

But thinking about it in a less reactionary manner (Jodie Foster cool), there are now a few well-functioning metropoles and municipalities which are being well looked after, are getting clean audits, and are showing signs of real hope.

Businesses, in these areas, could have the best impact by meeting with the relevant mayors and councillors and asking which initiatives they can back and get behind – those most allied and suited to their company’s expertise and budgets. This would be the easy start. A more collaborative relationship that doesn’t just take the shape and form of a “chamber” but more of an active partnership.

But, it’s business unusual for South Africa right now as the pendulum has swung so far to the side of “out of control”, in terms of plundering, absent consequence, rampant unemployment, unaffordable education, inadequate quality healthcare and a crumbling of many state services and infrastructure that, dare I say, many effective decisions and actions will now need to be taken, assuming the absence of government (metaphorically, our country’s parents) to swing the pendulum back – thus necessitating viewing our role through the prism of acting “in loco parentis”.

If it is going to be “business unusual” for South Africa in solving these problems, we need to think differently about potential solutions.

Currently all self-respecting companies operate on a fiscal. We set plans to achieve our revenue results, keep overheads in line (hopefully) with our strategy and try to deliver an operating profit-to-revenue ratio which keeps our shareholders, management and staff happy and gainfully employed.

We now need to apply less of a 12-month fiscal mentality and do things slightly differently and hopefully agree with our shareholders to make slightly less money in order to fix this place. To drive some of these specifically allocated bottom-line profits directly into our own initiatives through accountable organisations, individuals and channels, they should be tax deductible too.

Imagine if all businesses agreed to take 10% of their profits (in addition to their current CSI initiatives) and for the board to play a direct role in where these funds go over a five-year period. This is no semi-socialist suggestion, but one suggested here by a “responsible capitalist” so as to bring some profound change to our country. We cannot change this place by practising “same-same but different”. We require fresh ideas and behaviours.

But what about the billions being misappropriated (stolen) right now?” and “We are are already taxed to the hilt,” I hear you say? Correct and correct.

The first part of this agreement, before investing more “in loco parentis”, is to meet urgently with government and agree to an independently audited action plan where our current tax funds cannot be abused going forward. Naive – possibly, but a start.

Where a Faith Muthambi cannot fly 30 family members to Cape Town to attend Parliament. Where the Auditor-General plays a far greater and direct role in how money is spent rather than simply reporting on how money was spent before it’s recorded as “fruitless and wasteful” expenditure.

We need a special, transparent and very public intervention and initiative developed with government/Parliament to address this corruption crisis. Part of this agreement must also be for our asset forfeiture unit to be liberated to investigate, uncover and seize all ill-gotten means from our tax money and related nefarious activities. There is no amnesty.

I’d like every retired accountant and bookkeeper who is still energetic to avail themselves to #CountryDuty (as is now a popular term on Twitter) to help ensure government departments are spending their funds judiciously. It’ll give them something valuable to do, if they aren’t busy, and will be part of the private/public pact agreed with government – and will earn them money too – for heaven knows, with lifespans increasing as they are, who other than the semi-wealthy can afford to retire well (an article for another day).

But how will this happen, Mike? Will government be remotely receptive?

I’m not sure how many of you have listened to the BBC interview with Atul Gupta on his involvement with Bell Pottinger? I’ve never previously heard the voice of Atul Gupta – although I have often wondered how these foreign nationals (now insta-citizens thanks to Minister Malusi Gigaba) have the gravitas and persuasive powers to have taken hold of our country’s joystick, so to speak.

So when I heard Atul was going to be interviewed I expected the reverberating and all-powerful voice of Jafar, the evil magician from Aladdin – yet instead I heard the thin and tinny voice of a skermunkel (love that Afrikaans word) frantically and unconvincingly denying the allegations of BP and their involvement in these heinous crimes of driving racism in the pursuit of State Capture and offering Mcebisi Jonas a R600-million bribe.

I thought, really, is this the guy that is offering Cabinet ministers jobs, allegedly flying our billions out of the country, directing our President and has taken our prosecution authorities hostage? The only way for this ridiculous situation to remain this way is for us to behave like victims. For the captains of industry, big political voices and everyday South Africans to accept this bizarre situation.

We are far bigger and better than this. Our Constitution does also allow for citizen’s arrest, as far as I understand.

So, let us put unyielding and relentless pressure on our prosecution authorities to act – or seek an intervention through the court (like Outa does) to have their leaders fired if they don’t act. If Shaun Abrahams is being paid by our tax money to protect us, the citizens of this country, from crime, then to take a salary and not do the job, is a crime in and of itself. The same goes for our Public Protector who believed attacking the independence of the Reserve Bank was somehow protecting the public, as our rand subsequently further imploded – and yet she remains in her job despite costing our country billions – let alone the loss in investment faith and credibility from global investors (which is critical for job creation). Are we victims?

Unemployment: one of the greatest needs right now is to get people working and earning. I’ve long believed in adopting a version of the Kibbutz system here and training people to become subsistence farmers, produce saleable goods and provide basic healthcare and solid education within these structures. But much like vital desalination, because these ideas come from Israel, the only villain in that peaceful, all-loving and human rights bastion part of the world, it isn’t being meaningfully taken on board (but that’s also another article).

We need to start looking at new solutions around education and employment. Daytime and evening mentoring at community halls and churches by those who have the time and inclination. Data costs must also drop and be co-sponsored, as it’s now critical to education and empowering people.

People all need devices like tablets, mobile phones and computers today. Is there a company that collects your old tech as you buy or receive new ones, that reconditions them and gives them to those who can’t afford them? We created The Street Store to do this for clothing, maybe we could do the same for tech. How many dormant computers and mobile phones do you have in your home or company?

I also believe that educational sites should look at how to offer free courses (sponsored by corporates possibly?) and free data downloads for those economically disadvantaged to enhance distance learning.

School – is there a Curro-Lite model without the frills and fancies that can offer kids reliable teachers, desks, chairs and decent lessons: a Formula 1 hotel version versus a 5-star hotel. I think back to Taddy Blecher when he founded CIDA City Campus. This should happen across the country at schools and universities to drive a #FeesMustFall solution.

And, last but certainly not least, we need business and individuals to support independent media, like this publication you are probably reading for free right now, with subscriptions.

Where would South Africa be without the empowering and vital information we receive on these channels versus the government and Gupta-led propaganda tools?

We need a strong, vital and independent media to have a healthy democracy. If we don’t, we’ll be duped and not be able to hold government, business and ourselves accountable.

It’s time for business to truly “hear the lambs” and to do a little more that’ll be memorable and impactful on the lives of all South Africans.

If we don’t find and use our reverberating voice and related actions now, there won’t be a later time when we can. DM


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