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Business helping out the state — don’t expect a quick fix

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Dr Imraan Buccus is a senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute and a postdoctoral fellow at Durban University of Technology.

Bringing in skills from business will only help to take us forward if there is a deep commitment on both sides to find common ground and work together in the common interest.

South Africa is in a steadily worsening crisis. From mass unemployment to an economy that can’t grow owing to the electricity fiasco, it’s a real mess. 

It’s clear to all that we cannot carry on as we are. With the most likely outcome of the election next year being the growing influence of small toxic parties and the instability that comes with coalitions, the electoral decline of the ANC doesn’t offer much hope for any sort of reduction of the mess that we are in.

Our crisis has many dimensions, including years of austerity, massive corruption and the ANC’s penchant for “cadre deployment” rather than appointing the best people to do important jobs. The latter has meant that many people in government jobs do not have the qualifications and experience to do their jobs to an adequate standard.

But despite the escalating emigration of skilled people, we do still have world-class skills in South Africa, usually located in universities, NGOs and business. Any serious attempt to find a way out of our crisis will have to make use of these skills, including in business.

For this reason, the news that business has agreed to come to the rescue to work alongside the state to address load shedding, the performance of trains and ports, and the crippling levels of crime is very welcome.

The workstreams that have been created have been greeted with widespread approval across many sectors of society. Of course, this is in light of the skills and resources present in corporate South Africa, with the very best having been brought in to help save the country — from Anglo American head Nolitha Fakude to Toyota’s CEO, Andrew Kirby, and Sasol’s Fleetwood Grobler.

However, there are at least two reasons for caution. One is the André de Ruyter debacle at Eskom. Parachuting in a business executive can’t resolve deep, structural rot, and when that executive is openly hostile to the traditions of the liberation movement, things are never going to get anywhere.

Bringing in skills from business will only help to take us forward if there is a deep commitment on both sides to find common ground and work together in the common interest.

However, the pitiful weakness of Cyril Ramaphosa as a president and his cowardly refusal to confront the rot in his party and the institutions that it has populated with its people, are not encouraging. One can only hope that the imminent possibility of a loss of its electoral majority will concentrate his mind, and the minds of others in the party, to finally act to cut out the rot.

A second reason for caution is that, while business has an array of desperately needed skills, it is still business, and business has a particular view of the world centred on the drive to make a profit. An approach to, say, electricity centred on profit maximisation would get the lights back on, but would also see electricity as a commodity rather than a social good. This is fundamentally problematic in any society, but potentially disastrous in a society with mass unemployment and impoverishment.

For this reason, we need social pressure to stop the ANC from continuing with its failed policy of “cadre deployment” and to support any initiatives in support of excellence and against corruption emerging from within the ruling party and the state.

There are forces within the ANC and the state, largely the old Mbekists, that are committed to anti-corruption and building a professional civil service. They should be supported, but the bulk of the party is rotten and so pressure on the ANC will have to come largely from civil society, the media and trade unions with the capacity to take up this challenge.

Large parts of the media are neoliberal in orientation, so pressure on business to focus on providing expertise and not policy direction will have to come from civil society, trade unions and grassroots organising. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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  • Miles Japhet says:

    Business has to extract policy change in order to reverse the rot. Failure to use their bargaining power will be an exercise in naivety and is doomed to failure.
    We are all very aware that BEE and BEE enabled carder deployment, unrealistic labour laws and the general culture of entitlement resulting thereform , is at the toor of why we are not only outcompeted by other countries in the economic race but also will remain so for so long as business men are demonised.
    We are the greatest asset the countryhas , for without skills, experience, risk taking and investment the poor have no hope. Business well understands the ability to do well by doing good. Electricity provision could easily fall into his category.

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