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The case for a Minister of Business and Economic Growth

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Ian Kilbride is Honorary Professor at Stellenbosch Business School, and chairman of Spirit Invest and the Spirit Foundation.

Regardless of the 29 May general election results, two issues are clear: first, economic growth will be the new government’s primary challenge; second, given the abject failure of existing economic policies, new and innovative approaches are needed.

A maverick but not-so-radical proposal is for the establishment of a Ministry for Business and Economic Growth, together with the appointment of an appropriately experienced businessperson as its head. 

While novel, the idea is not unique. 

New Zealand, for example, has a Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, which encompasses the areas of building and energy, employment, immigration and tourism and science and technology.

It plays a transversal role across government. 

Of course, the phenomenon of businesspeople entering politics is also nothing new. Cecil John Rhodes, Harry Oppenheimer, Zach De Beer, Herman Mashaba, Alan Winde and, of course, President Cyril Ramaphosa have all excelled in business and politics. 

We also have the precedent of then president Nelson Mandela appointing SA Breweries chair, Meyer Khan, as CEO of the SA Police Service in 1997. 

But establishing a new ministry headed by a business leader would be brave and innovative, and provide a fillip to the business community and potentially the economy more broadly. 

To date, government stewardship of the economy has been underwhelming. 

The June 2019 amalgamation of the Department of Economic Development with that of Trade and Industry (and Competition) has largely failed. 

And while laudable in intent, the Ministry of Small Business Development has not achieved meaningful success. 

Indeed, South Africa has one of the highest small business failure rates in the world, with five in seven failing within the first year. 

More broadly, relative to South Africa’s peers, local economic growth has lagged drastically. 

Stripping out the Covid lockdown and recovery period, South Africa’s GDP has averaged 1.2% from 2018 to 2023.  

In 2018, 24% of the eligible workforce was unemployed. The latest figures record an unemployment rate of 32.1%. 

The current model is not working and requires radical rethinking at the policy and institutional level. 

The logic of a businessperson heading a new Ministry of Business and Economic Growth is incontrovertible. 

Currently, the common thread running through the economic cluster ministries is membership of, or former membership of, the South African Communist Party and/or trade union leadership. 

None has direct, firsthand, entrepreneurial business experience. 

With the notable exception of the State President, no member of Cabinet has established or run a business. In ideological terms, the Cabinet economic cluster is largely antithetical to business by persuasion. 

Communists and trade unionists may be principled, competent and committed members of Cabinet, but they should not be running the economy.   

The merits of the establishment of a Ministry for Business and Economic Growth headed by a suitably qualified businessperson are manifold. 

First, such an office and appointee could and should be viewed as apolitical. Indeed, it would be desirable for the incumbent to be above party politics. 

While the appointment of an accomplished and respected businessperson to Cabinet may be anathema to some political parties, unions and civil society groupings on ideological grounds, the president has the constitutional discretion to appoint two “external” ministers rather than drawing from party lists. 

Indeed, this was the case with the appointment of DTIC Minister Ebrahim Patel in 2019 and Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana in 2021. 

Any post-May 2024 State President has the discretion to select and appoint a non-partisan, accomplished and respected business leader to lead the new ministry. 

Second, from a stakeholder perspective, the appointment of an experienced and respected businessperson to head the Business and Economic Growth Ministry would give the complex and diverse South African business sector a single ministerial and departmental focal point with which to engage, rather than the current disparate, siloed and overly complicated configuration. 

This alone would significantly enhance not just business confidence, but also the ease of doing business in South Africa. 

Third, such a ministry and appointment would aid inter-departmental coordination and facilitate joined-up governance, particularly within the economic cluster. 

The absence of such joined-up governance has led Ramaphosa to strengthen the centralising role of the Presidency itself, which, while understandable, leads to an over-concentration of power in what is becoming a super-presidency. 

Given the tectonic shifts currently unfolding in the party-political terrain, business has a rare opportunity to insert itself into the mainstream political governance debate; less on party-political grounds, perhaps, but rather with the broader national imperative of achieving a more progressive, workable and successful institutional arrangement with government. 

It is perfectly legitimate for business to propose and lobby for the establishment of a Business and Economic Growth Ministry and to recommend its founding incumbent. 

So, who might business look to as a suitable candidate? 

Several names spring to mind that have enjoyed highly successful business careers and who may also be politically palatable to a broad spectrum of political parties. 

Patrice Motsepe, Lazarus Zim, Mark Barnes, Fani Titi, Maria Ramos and Kuseni Dlamini all fit the bill and, while they may not be grateful to be nominated, each would be broadly welcomed by the business community. 

Retiring Business Unity SA CEO Cas Coovadia is another whose professional, business and organisational experience would be broadly welcomed. 

Similarly, Business Leadership SA CEO Busisiwe Mavuso is someone who would bring considerable drive and organising energy to such a new ministry.  

The country is desperately in need of innovative thinking and boldness by politicians and business leaders alike, so, perhaps there has never been a better time than now to respond to the nation’s “thuma mina” call. DM

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  • Middle aged Mike says:

    Ah yes, another ministry. That’ll do it.

  • Anthony Kearley says:

    In my opinion, what our economy needs is not a new brand of political intervention, rather it needs an end to political intervention. Governments cannot run nor guide an economy, because they have different criteria for success and I suspect this important difference between short-term election pressures and long-term economic growth are irreconcilable. Another ministry is just another stumbling block on the path to prosperity.

  • Senzo Moyakhe says:

    And here I was thinking we were BEGging enough already for a Minister in the current crowd who actually knows his/her job and you are lobbying for yet another Ministries.

    Mind you, your suggestion bears a noble intent but the chances of the cANCer choosing someone not linked to their behemoth is highly unlikely. Even Godongwana and Patel are ANC, it’s just that they were not on the national party list.

    New Zealand has a working democracy, we are just pretending for the time being…

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