Defend Truth

Opinionista

We are in urgent need of ethical leadership to heal our divided country

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Bonang Mohale is chancellor of the University of the Free State, former president of Business Unity South Africa (BUSA), professor of practice at the Johannesburg Business School (JBS) in the College of Business and Economics and chairperson of The Bidvest Group, ArcelorMittal and SBV Services. He is a member of the Community of Chairpersons (CoC) of the World Economic Forum and author of two bestselling books, Lift As You Rise and Behold The Turtle. He has been included in Reputation Poll International’s (RPI) 2023 list of the “100 Most Reputable Africans”. He is the recipient of the 2023 ME-Vision Academy’s “Exclusive Recognition in Successful Leadership” award.

We must always remember that leadership is other-centred, not self-centred. It’s a privilege to improve others’ lives, not an opportunity for self-enrichment.

It’s disturbing that 30 years into democracy, poverty still predominantly wears a black and feminine face. If wealth was the inevitable outcome of hard work and enterprise, then every woman in Africa would be a dollar billionaire.

Thirty years into democracy, we should aspire to more. That is the job of real leaders who look at themselves in the mirror every day to see what they can do to improve the lives of others. Because my grandmother teaches me that when your neighbour is hungry you cannot sleep at night – not your neighbour, YOU cannot sleep at night.

Business cannot remain an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty. We must open spaces for the majority to participate, reclaim their self-worth, and truly experience what it means to be human. As leaders, we must realise better humans through our actions – not just in words.

We must foster highly connected and active citizens who help to solve our most challenging problems, always remembering that leadership is other-centred, not self-centred. It’s a privilege to improve others’ lives, not an opportunity for self-enrichment.

Ego hinders leadership, just as panic impedes progress. Vulnerability is strength, and arrogance masks insecurity. Perhaps we can graduate from humankind to kind humans, from mere importance to true significance. Our humanity shines brightest when we connect.

We discuss this amid new nomenclature – load shedding and water shedding. We’ve grappled with load shedding for 16 and a half years without resolution. Despite promises that it might end by December 2023, the maths reveals a systemic and systematic gap. Eskom, with 57 gigawatts of nameplate electricity, falls short. Our 20 power stations yield less than 27GW. The gap between generation and peak demand is 6GW (6,000 megawatts).

We knew that we wanted to build four million more houses that will need to be electrified. We knew that we wanted to electrify at a rate of 10,000 households a day, right from the time that Dr Reuel Khoza was the chair of this entity, when it won the award for best utility in the world, and it had a rating higher than sovereign. So, what we failed to do was to think deeply and profoundly about what we were going to do when we inherited this state-owned enterprise.

The economy lost R570-billion of our gross domestic product (GDP) in 2022. When load shedding reaches stage 6, we lose R4-billion per day. Between stages, the daily loss is R500-million due to a lack of electricity – our fourth means of production, with land being the primary means.

Poor growth

Over the past 17 years we have wiped off an average of two percentage points in our GDP. The highest GDP growth we’ve achieved was in the 43 consecutive quarters of positive GDP growth when we had our second democratically elected president, Thabo Mbeki, in October 2007.

Ever since then we haven’t reached anything close to that. We know that our population growth is 1.5%, and yet in the past 10 years this economy has never grown by more than two percentage points. Our discretionary purchasing power and our disposable income have been going backwards; we buy less for the same amount of rands today compared with the same period 10 years ago.

As we consider water shedding, spare a moment for the community of Hammanskraal, who – not for 20 months, but for 20 years – have not had running water simply because of two things: failing infrastructure, and the failure to conduct planned and preventative maintenance. That’s all it is!

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It was our first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, who said education matters, because it’s the surest way one can transcend social classes. Born poor in Alexandra, after 20 to 23 years of hard work and application you are able to afford a house in the leafy suburbs of Bryanston, not because you won a tender, but because you have earned it, you can afford it and you deserve it.

Dare to have a compelling vision

The Department of Higher Education and Training, led by Dr Blade Nzimande, conducted a study in 2022. The figures reveal that we have 26 public universities with 1.2 million students. Educating every single one of them on a fee-free basis would cost R50-billion. Focusing solely on households with a combined income below R350,000, the cost would be R20-billion. However, there’s a pressing issue: historical debt. That figure is at R16.5-billion, R9.2-billion of which is irrecoverable.

Let’s consider the 1.5 million medium-sized companies with turnovers exceeding R300-million, the 289 companies listed on the JSE and the 60 companies holding securities in 80 private equity firms. All of them have corporate social investment programmes, and education is a key focus for 98% of these companies.

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If we approach these companies and simply ask that they take the money that has already been approved by their boards and put it in a historical debt fund, we would be able to wipe out the entire R16.5-billion historical debt in one year, because we dared to have a compelling vision.

This gives our future leaders hope to ensure that they don’t have to suffer the indignity of food insecurity and period poverty.

Education matters because when one steadily burns the midnight oil, one gains access to the domain of knowledge and wisdom, the world of many, the world that cannot be conquered without the persistent crusade. Unscrupulous politicians hate educated blacks, because educated blacks make it impossible to be fooled by unscrupulous politicians.

If we did that and only that, we might be able to usher in a better future for our children, rather than looking at ourselves in the mirror and realising that we were so eager to get into political office to be in power, that we didn’t profoundly consider what we’re going to do when we get this freedom to fundamentally change the structure of this economy. DM

This keynote address was delivered at the Trialogue Business in Society Conference 2024, held just before the 29 May general elections.

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