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Business would do well to follow Jabu Mabuza’s example of focusing on action, not words

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Sasha Planting is a seasoned financial journalist and Associate Business Editor at Daily Maverick Business.

The untimely death of former Eskom chairperson Jabu Mabuza has me reflecting on the words 'Only the good die young', immortalised by Billy Joel in 1977, but which can be traced back to a poem written in 1814 by English romantic poet William Wordsworth, called The Excursion: 'The good die first / And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust burn / Burn to the socket.’ Searing words.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Whether 63 is young is relative, but what cannot be debated is that Jabu Mabuza’s contribution to the South African business environment, as eloquently outlined in an obituary by Hlubi Xaba, has been cut short.

Mabuza was a self-made man who was equally at home on the street as in the boardroom. He will be remembered for, among other things, standing up for what he believed was right, and helping to mend the broken relationship between business and government.

As South Africans have learnt, a balanced relationship between government and business is required for the welfare of the economy and the nation.

The relationship was tainted by distrust during the Thabo Mbeki era and was left to fester and rot during the Jacob Zuma years. It has improved under the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa, who recognises that a robust and healthy business sector is integral to South Africa’s economic stability and growth; and that the two parties are co-dependent – whether they like it or not. People like Mabuza knew this intuitively.

Leaving governments aside, the role that business plays in society has been hotly debated over the past decade.

We no longer talk about “maximising shareholder value” as this resulted in a period of untrammelled greed, when shareholders and executives were enriched at the expense of customers, employees, the environment and society as a whole.

In came stakeholder capitalism, the notion that a business focuses on meeting the needs of all its stakeholders: customers, employees, partners, the community, and so on. This is a noble intention and is important in an era that requires collective thinking to solve problems such as inequality and global warming. But it is also an imprecise notion that is difficult to measure and far too easy to pay lip service to.

For instance, if company X has committed to “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050 and wants to improve its carbon footprint and earn “green” points, it can start by building a new “green” head office, which would immediately improve its carbon score.

But this ignores the fact that the process of building a new office is far more carbon-intensive than improving the old one – a fact that is not taken into account in the carbon-scoring equation.

Perhaps a trite example, but if business is going to hold itself to lofty ideals, we need better systems of measurement and evaluation (but definitely not more regulation).

This is why I think a recent letter penned by Tim Ryan, the global CEO of PwC, is worthy of mention, despite that the reputation of some global audit and consulting firms has been sullied by past behaviour.

In his blog on LinkedIn, Ryan announced that PwC was embarking on a “once in a generation” strategy change aimed at providing its clients (and itself) with a more robust system of metrics and accountability to support the move towards stakeholder capitalism (for want of a better term).

The challenges and opportunities of the future – climate change, technological disruption, artificial intelligence, competition, trade imbalances and shifting geopolitics – will require a very broad skill set to solve.

“The business community is coming into its own as an agent of stability and progress in our chaotic world – and our goal is to help that community make bigger, better decisions as we help advance our society together,” Ryan writes.

This acknowledges two fundamental realities. First, stepping back to lead, rather than manage, is often difficult, but particularly in a complex world. Companies operate in a hypercompetitive environment. They are fighting for investor capital, and the way they win investor confidence is to outperform. But, in the process, they need to ensure that people are not left behind.

Think about the likes of Exxaro, which needs to migrate from its carbon-intensive coal mining business model towards one that is carbon neutral and sustainable – without leaving its mining communities behind in plumes of smog and dust.

The second is trust, and here the bar is only going up: ethics; worker pay and safety; environmental, social, and (corporate) governance; paying your fair share of taxes. Trust has never been more important, nor more difficult to earn and keep.

I’m not sure that “big audit” and “big consulting” can set the bar on either trust or leadership, but I watch this space with interest and hope. But they can play a constructive role in providing new approaches to reporting. This needs to be systemic and must relate to what organisations do, not just what they say.

Meanwhile, we will celebrate the life of Jabu Mabuza, a man who was less interested in what people said and more interested in what they did. He famously resigned from his position as chair of Eskom because he promised the country that the lights would stay on, and they did not. Now that’s accountability.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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