Guest Column

Business can't lead change while hiding skeletons

2017-10-02 13:21
Save SA convener Sipho Pityana repeatedly blasted President Jacob Zuma at the campaign's "real State of the Nation Address" in Cape Town. (Paul Herman, News24)

Save SA convener Sipho Pityana repeatedly blasted President Jacob Zuma at the campaign's "real State of the Nation Address" in Cape Town. (Paul Herman, News24)

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Goodnews Cadogan

One of my favourite opinion writers, Mpumelelo Mkhabela, a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn) at the University of Pretoria, wrote in appreciative form or enquiry, about how business leaders could save South Africa again. 

By raising its voice, in various formations, notably Business Leadership SA and through a couple of interventions, business leaders could lift us from the pit we find ourselves in because of leadership failure in politics, public and in government.

The state of decline in the State is common knowledge and a subject of another article, lest I digress. What prompted me to write what Mpumelelo referred to as a rejoinder as we discussed his article, is that I do not agree with his opinion.

In general, business leaders in South Africa have been heavily influenced by the profit motive and would act, in the socio-political context, only if they seek to protect erosion of profits because of failure of the State.

I am not for once pouring cold water on the projects like the CEO initiative, CEO Sleepout, Save SA, and the emerging C-suite voice against fraud, corruption, state capture and degeneration towards a failed State.

In her wisdom, Cynthia A. Patterson cautions us and says: “Those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it. You have to expose who you are so that you can determine what you need to become.” 

When Mkhabela invokes business leadership in South Africa as a reliable trigger for positive change, I cringe because I know that the current rumblings, just as they were in the 1980s, are triggered by state failure that threatens to erode business value.

In the 1980s we had a corrupt system of governance that excluded the black majority of South Africans from the mainstream economy. Human rights abuses, with business leaders colluding with government for the implementation of job reservation, and other employment practices were good for business at the expense of the black majority.

It was way back in 1979 that the Wiehahn Commission recommended the repeal of apartheid legislation in the workplace, but these practices remained in the hearts and minds of business leaders. You only must read the first of the 17 Commission on Employment Equity reports to see the slow pace of transformation in the private sector.

Without public sector progress in the deracialisation of the workplace, we would be far behind as a nation. Some of the black men and women who have made it up the ladder in the private sector, got their break in the public sector. This is but one area of transformation at which business leadership has failed dismally. 

Even the much-lauded political transformation that began with the unbanning of liberation organisations, and the later involvement of business through the Consultative Business Movement, resulting in Codesa (Convention for a Democratic South Africa), was triggered by a failing economy.

Business leadership had no choice but to embark on a drive to get to an open system of democratic government, for the sake of their individual and collective purses. The idea of radically opening up the economy at a micro level, to achieve macro-economic transformation was not part of the main agenda at Codesa, a function of the quality and sincerity of business leadership, then and now.

In the last 24 years the majority, if not all business leaders, have not had a leadership narrative that is patriotic and inclusive. This has robbed business leadership of the license to speak and be part of national leadership.

Henry Mintzberg in a Harvard Business Review article entitled, Managing Government and Governing Management, mentions four pillars that drive a high-performance culture for nation states: public, private, non-profit and co-operative sector leadership.

These pillars, he posits, are inseparable, and no nation thrives without patriotic co-operation across all. In the words of one Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini business leadership is hampered by a whole army of smallanyana skeletons that make it difficult to raise a legitimate voice of reason against the continued state plunder.

After Nenegate and a series of blunders by the current administration, we saw another wave of business leadership activism, again triggered by economic downturns.

It is for these reasons that I appeal to South African business leaders as individuals, in their teams, at enterprise-level, and as a national formation of big business, to find their authentic voice.

In the list of things:

1. Do the right thing

2. Stand by what is right

3. Reject what is wrong

They must find it in their hearts to connect their business practices as they relate with shareholders, local and foreign, to a clear line of sight with the founding principles of our Constitution, taking care to behave patriotically.

This refers to the illicit financial outflows that are commonly associated with transfer pricing and thin capitalisation. Locally it is about super profits at the expense of investment in people. 

All the countries that are ranked high on the World Competitiveness Report do not have as wide a chasm between business leadership and the majority of their population. These countries have a more collaborative relationship between their governments and business leadership and the other two sectors.

South African business leadership must let the skeletons out of their closets (associated with the apartheid-at-work history) so that they can get the license to speak out against state failure, and co-govern this economy.

The transformation of our economy must take center stage of all board and executive teams’ agendas and we should take care not to pass on the DNA of the past to the next generation, nor should we transfer the trauma of the past to the next generation of those who were done in by the apartheid economy.

Doing the right thing means fashioning organisation values of the enterprises we lead around the Constitution. Standing by what is right should begin within the businesses that we lead. Self-censoring should be part of rejecting what is wrong, first in our businesses, before we point to others out there.

It is only then that business leaders will be able to meet Mkhabela where he is at, in his appreciative enquiry. This may just be the key for us to move towards double digit growth as a nation. 

- Goodnews Cadogan is a coach to executives and their teams, and a designer of high performance organisations.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    business leadership south africa  |  save sa
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