Anyone up for being the goalie?

2012-05-05 11:14

Business skills and politics don’t mix well, but in South Africa, regrettably, a practice has arisen to mingle the two

Businesspeople often think they’ll make great politicians.

The first foreigner to whom our group exported technology, many years ago, was Silvio Berlusconi – an excellent businessman.

When he became premier, I thought: forza Italia! Now we all know how that turned out. A few years later we traded with Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand. An agile CEO too, but when prime minister . . .

Why are businesspeople such lousy public servants?

It may lie deep in the genes. Businesspeople are selfish. They build structures to make money. There’s nothing wrong with that, as Adam Smith saw, provided everyone stays within the law.

Let each one chase money in his grinding but legal little ways and in the process create jobs – as soon as he makes money, we tax him nicely anyway. (Our group, for example, last year paid our shareholders R1.1 billion in dividends and the South African state R4 billion in taxes.)

By contrast, a politician serves his fellow men. He or she is elected not to seek selfish profit, but to serve the common good on behalf of all of us.

For that, he or she receives only a salary and a pension so, once retired, has to give public speeches or write memoirs to pay the Woolworths account (just ask Tony Blair, Festus Mogae of Botswana and every other
honest politician).

In South Africa, regrettably, a practice has arisen to mingle the two.

Politicians acquire business interests and soon can’t distinguish between private profit and the greater public good.

Conversely, businesspeople are “cadre deployed” into public appointments and use those to push their private interests, more or less as Berlusconi did in Italy and Thaksin in Thailand.

Perhaps most damaging of all has been “cadre deployment” of politicos into our public enterprises.

There can hardly be another country in the world that has mangled its great public corporations like we have in recent years: Eskom, Telkom, the SABC, Sentech, the Land Bank, etc.

It makes you reach for the Twinsavers. Billions of our common funds that could have gone into schools or pensions were wasted by incompetence.

Many, many thousands of jobs have been lost. A big part of our economy is run by parastatals – so what happens there matters a great deal.

Race is certainly not the problem. Once the SABC had a seasoned black business professional, Peter Matlare, as manager: it turned a profit.

Then a political favourite was parachuted in and it disintegrated into loss. Ditto elsewhere.

What is it about the art of business management that makes politicians fail?

Recently, a contractor dug a ditch in the parking lot around our building.

The man drove a yellow Caterpillar with tracks and a huge hydraulic digging arm. My car was hemmed in, so I sat staring at the guy in the cabin controlling this yellow monster.

He wore a goatee and looked tough; his tattooed arms shuddered as he pulled levers this way and that; his feet stepped on pedals to crunch the left track forward or brake the right one (I know not what); then he pushed a hidden button and slammed a lever to slew the long dipper and bucket effortlessly across the nose of my car.

It struck me that the goatee in the cabin was doing a good management job.

It is neither noble nor particularly intellectual, but put a novice like me into that cabin and I will mangle the ditch and scrap five cars, and probably toast myself by swiping power cables overhead with the digging arm.

Management of a large corporation is like that. It’s a specialised skill learnt over many years of study and gradual experience.

That’s how Phuthuma Nhleko became a successful CEO at MTN, or Sizwe Nxasana at FirstRand.

To parachute a politician in as head of a complex commercial group is as wise as dressing that same gentleman in the strip of Kaizer Chiefs and sending him on the field as goalie in the next derby against Pirates.

Like the kids type on their cellphones: LOL.

“Cadre deployment” into our public corporations is evil and the results are there for all to see. It is also French, which is worse.

This is how you become head of Air France KLM: you study at an exclusive grande école, work for a minister and, if loyal enough, one day he will apply parachutage – cadre deploy you into a great corporation.

The French economy has suffered. Surveys show that French workers are emotionally disengaged from their companies.

The parachuted imperial droppings are seen as snooty and impractical. Germany or Sweden have little of this nonsense and have prospered.

Here in our beloved country the route to head a public corporation regrettably has become loyalty to an influential politician.

Imagine in your mind’s eye such a scene of parachutage one morning in Pretoria: “Well done, young man, you’ve been loyal to me; I hereby crown you head of Acme Corporation. From tomorrow morning 11 000 workers will report to you. Where the head office is? How should I know? Call 1023!”

Can we fix this problem?

The solution seems rather simple. Let’s be led politically by politicians: leaders with few private interests and a wish to serve the common good.

They won’t make much money – exactly like elsewhere in the world – but if they’re good, they will get into history books and we’ll make bronze statues of them.

Let public corporations be run by people who have had their noses to the grindstone in that particular line of work.

Everyone will gain. Except politicians who want to use public office for private gain – what is called corruption.

Or businesspeople who want to be immortalised in bronze statues without subjecting themselves to the public service ethic.

Or any of us who want to play goalie for Kaizer Chiefs without the pain of first training very hard.

» Bekker is CEO of Naspers, a media and technology group operating in 131 countries. He writes in his personal capacity


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