Defend Truth


Business & Government – just smoking the peace pipe, or time for a fair exchange?


Steuart Pennington manages, mentors 12 young development journalists and assists in the upliftment of 16 under-resourced schools in the Natal Midlands.

Government policy and enablement have to align with what business needs to grow and investors need to know, only then will we be able to ‘assist’ each other.

The front page of the Sunday Times of 11 June reads, “Business and government smoke peace pipe”. It reports that “Ramaphosa stressed the business and government were ‘working together’ and that they needed to counter the assumption that business was ‘assisting government’ which implied the administration was incompetent”.

Agreement was reached on the formation of a National Logistics Crisis Committee and a joint initiative to fight crime and corruption built on the success of the National Energy Crisis Committee. 

Ramaphosa especially requested that “while we are expecting you not to be praise singers, do not bash the country on public platforms”. 

Martin Kingston of Rothschild SA concluded: “We’ve been working with government behind the scenes for months now to see how we can partner with them in these respects… we have to be mindful of conflicts of interest, of how we are communicating, so there is no scepticism or suspicion, so we can rebuild trust which is earned over time.”

Kingston continued: “What is different, as we have seen … a very significant number of private sector leaders, CEOs of big companies championing each of the work streams. In my view, this is unprecedented.” 

Respectfully, as I have written below, this positive initiative with three specific focus areas may be “unprecedented”, but it ignores two things:

  • What business and civil society are already doing.
  • What government is doing to frustrate what business and civil society are already doing.

“Working together” is neither smoking the peace pipe, nor is it one-way traffic. It must be a process of fair exchange.

Naturally, there is cynicism

Quite broadly, the reaction has been cynical regarding the “peace pipe” toenadering. I guess cynicism is ingrained in much of our media narrative, as well as much of our public comment. We seem to obsess about gloom and doom and what can or could go wrong. 

As Tracey Davies in the FM writes, “An article in the May 22 edition of The Economist titled, Business Leaders Fear that South Africa Risks Becoming a Failed State”, noted that ‘for several years firms have sent staff to help run government departments, paying their wages’.” 

Apparently “corporate lawyers work at the prosecuting authority; bankers toil in the department of industry, several secondees are involved in Operation Vulindlela” and there is “insourcing of help to Mr Ramaphosa’s office”.

“Now, I can hear you say: “Thank goodness. If only the private sector were running the country.” And there are many areas in which private sector capability outstrips that of the government.

“But don’t fool yourself that these seconded lawyers and bankers are toiling away for your benefit. Business works for its own interests, and while those interests may sometimes align with what is best for society at large (we all need affordable, reliable electricity and drinking water that doesn’t kill us), this is certainly not always the case. 

“Powerful industry associations in this country spend a lot of time and effort lobbying the government to make sure the rules suit big business, regardless of the impact on everyone else. That is why we have weak air pollution laws, a toothless carbon tax and no legal requirement to disclose wage gaps.

Well, Tracey, that’s only part of the story. Business does not entirely work for its own selfish interests

Civil society’s contribution is not acknowledged by government

What has been overlooked is the incredible work that business and the NGO sector are already doing, much of it behind the scenes, to “assist”; to help rebuild this country (given our past); to supplement the lack of delivery on behalf of government. 

On my website, I have a section on Corporate and NGO Good Deeds – hardly a day goes by when I don’t publish a story of an education, food delivery, youth, health or environmental project.

Read more here: Newly renovated ECD centre handed over to the Galeshewe Community – The Home Of Great South African News

And here: Incredible example of Private Sector/Civil Society collaboration: Engen and FoodForward SA travel over half a million km’s together

And here: Marking its 10th year of success, the Waves of Change Programme celebrates a decade of achievements. – The Home Of Great South African News

And here: The Clicks Helping Hand Trust and Colgate bring bright smiles to Siyabulela Primary School – The Home Of Great South African News 

And here: Southern Sun and Miss Earth South Africa join forces to celebrate World Environment Day 2023

These all “assist”, and that should be acknowledged by government. 

Billions of rands are spent by the corporate sector and raised by the NGO sector to assist, rebuild and fix areas in which government has been unable to do so.

Also overlooked is “Employer Assisted Volunteering”, where employers make room for staff to volunteer in paid company time on projects they are passionate about. 

Hundreds of thousands of worker-bee South Africans, black and white, are out there every day assisting, making a contribution to building our societal fabric constructively.

Government coming to the party – one-way traffic, or fair exchange?

I would recommend that, in acknowledgement of the contribution the private sector and civil society are making to the rebuilding of this country, government should reflect on what it needs to do to deliver common purpose, economic dignity and national pride. 

This can only be done in a process of fair exchange – that’s what builds trust. Literally, business can only work with government provided there are frank discussions regarding proposed “policy” legislation. 

It cannot be one-way traffic, for example:

Employment Equity Amendment Act implications

Johan Botha of the Solidarity Teacher’s Network warns, “Education has already been plunged into a crisis due to the lack of infrastructure and resources. Now the government wants to get rid of quality teachers and propel the whole sector towards collapse…

“The impact of the proposed regulations on the education sector is that they will have to get rid of just under 75% of white teachers; 55% of Indian teachers and 25,3% of coloured teachers. This implies that to meet the minister’s targets, two out of three white and Indian teachers, and one out of four coloured teachers would have to be replaced.”

What madness is this?

National Health Insurance Bill implications

As the National Assembly debated and voted on the National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill on 13 June, the Free Market Foundation anticipated that this unworkable and unaffordable scheme would be adopted, mirroring the reckless approval of the Bill by the health portfolio committee on 25 May. 

There are holdouts of excellence in healthcare in South Africa, most of which are in the private health sector. The NHI scheme, if adopted, would likely ensure that the problems that characterise the public healthcare system are transplanted to the private sector. 

How workable is this?

National Water Act implications

Terence Corrigan writes in The Daily Friend, “The proposed regulations under the National Water Act seek to impose racial requirements for water use licences. ‘Specifically,’ it demands ‘the enterprise in respect of the application must allocate shares to black people in the proportions specified.’”

Seriously, can you racialise water supply?

On SAfm recently, Cas Coovadia of Busa, in the context of these developments, argued forcefully that government’s role is to create an enabling environment and formulate appropriate policy, and that business should stick to their knitting. 

I hope the points raised above show the extent to which the parties are talking past each other with different versions of the facts that inform our reality. Many of us are sceptical. 

This week, the Centre for Development and Enterprise released a new report called South Africa’s Anti-Growth Strategy: How poor policy and bad governance are wrecking SA growth, which describes the dire growth performance of the economy over the past 15 years. 

It concludes that slow economic growth is overwhelmingly the result of bad policy choices, a catastrophic decline in government performance coupled with a devastating lack of leadership. Thus, not only does the government not have solutions to weak growth, it is itself a brake on growth.

The question is: Will this peace pipe produce a different smoke? It will, but only if government is prepared to confront the facts and the truth of the past 30 years. 


As Andrew Robertson, President of BBDO Worldwide, says, “I believe that we are in an era where facts have never been easier to lay our hands on. Here’s the point. Whilst you cannot have truth without facts, just because you have facts doesn’t mean you have truth, let alone the truth. We need to recognise that we all have to work a lot harder to understand the full context in order to get to the truth, or at least close to it.”

Only if government, business and civil society engage in a process of fair exchange will all stakeholders understand what the truth of this country is and work collectively to do something about it. 

Government policy and enablement have to align with what business needs to grow and investors need to know – only then will we be able to “assist” each other. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    Thanks Steuart for bringing reality to the current focus on the relationship between Government and Business. Great article

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    correct, cynicism is ingrained simply because government and business just dont talk to us mere mortals. with all the good work indicated above this does deserve to be acknowledged. would it not be better if this was fed at intervals and not not just at crisis point. contrary to the cynicism about the media, if positive information like the above was fed to the media regularly one would find it very supportive. thank you for this and keep us all up to date regularly so South Africans can feel positive about their country again.

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