Business ‘waited too long’ to engage Malema

2011-06-25 09:35

Big business has blamed itself for waiting too long to enter the debate on nationalisation, but has now found its voice on the thorny issue.

And several business luminaries told City Press this week that they are ready to enter into debate with ANC Youth League president Julius Malema and ­government over the ownership of mines, banks and land.

»?Business Leadership SA (BLSA) chief executive Michael Spicer said they would engage Malema in debate on “facts and figures”;

»?BLSA chairperson and former ­mining boss Bobby Godsell said only “stupid” South Africans would ignore the debate and that business should have spoken out and done more on the issue of nationalisation;

»?Anglo American chief executive Cynthia Carroll said she believed that government “will make the right decisions around the nationalisation of mines debate”; and

»?Acting Business Unity South Africa (Busa) chief executive Raymond ­Parsons said he wanted to take the nationalisation debate to the “next level”.

The intensifying debate over mine nationalisation has raised questions on whether business has been
proactive and vocal enough to ­counter the youth league’s growing influence and confidence.

Spicer said that former president Thabo Mbeki’s government created a culture where business became ­afraid to make public pronouncements on controversial issues.

Mbeki was ultra-sensitive to public ­criticism from business.

“Business wants to work constructively and in partnerships, but they only work if both parties want them to work,” Spicer said this week.

He said that BLSA has not spoken to the youth league about nationalisation.

Talks would begin once the league has come up with a nationalisation argument backed by facts and figures based on research.

“We are interested in talking about ideas and relating them to reality on nationalisation experiences in South Africa and internationally,” said Spicer, who added that BLSA would not become ­entangled in politics.

On Thursday, Carroll said that ­Anglo American had confidence in the country. “We believe in this ­country and its free-market ­enterprise policy, and we are building for the future.

“We also believe that the government will make the right decisions around the nationalisation of mines debate that is currently raging. We will continue to engage with those who make the decisions,” she said.

Godsell said the youth league placed two issues on the table that business should be taking seriously: the nationalisation of mines and ­other sectors, including banks, and amendments to the Bill of Rights that would enable land expropriation without compensation.

“Only stupid South Africans would ignore these issues. Only very naive South Africans would be surprised by this and it would only be pathetic South Africans who are paralysed by this,” said Godsell.

He said further that he concurred with the youth league that the ­country faced challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

“But I do not agree with the league that nationalisation can solve the country’s challenges. Nationalisation would be bad for South Africa.

“There are much better ways to ­address poverty and unemployment. For instance, skills development and helping young people get new jobs,” said Godsell.

He said the Treasury would have lost R47?billion alone this year if the country’s mines were owned by the state.

Mining boss and president of the South African Mining Development Association Bridgette Radebe also encouraged mining bosses at a ­conference this week to enter the ­nationalisation debate.

Parsons said: “In hindsight, it is easy to say that business should have reacted sooner and more strongly to recent nationalisation proposals.

“Yet the nationalisation debate has been rumbling on intermittently for years. Even former president Nelson Mandela featured in it strongly in his first Cape Town speech after his release from prison in February 1990.”

He said lobbying and advocacy strategies had to be dealt with on an issue-by-issue basis.

“Business is also strongly committed to social dialogue in Nedlac, where the purpose is to find consensus rather than to encourage ­confrontation.

“Not all issues can be dealt with ­formally in Nedlac – but constructive engagement remains the preferred option,” he said.

Parsons said Busa wanted to take the debate on nationalisation to the next level and state its views where necessary.

“South Africa has to address serious socioeconomic challenges but the question remains as to the best ways of doing so,” he said.

“On nationalisation, it is rather better to find appropriate ways to ­engage stakeholders and promote constructive debate on alternative solutions to the socioeconomic challenges faced by SA,” said Parsons.

The chief executive of business school Regenesys, Brett Cousins, said business has not been proactive enough in leading the debate over ­nationalisation.

Cousins criticised business for ­failing to give itself enough time to understand the youth league’s definition of nationalisation.

“The youth league might only be talking about public and private mine ownership,” he said.

Cousins said there was a massive communication gap between business and the league.

“Business should be proactive by calling for a round-table discussion with the youth league and talk about nationalisation,” he said.

“There is a huge communication gap between business and the youth league about its nationalisation intentions and implications,” he said.

Professor Owen Skae, the director of Rhodes Business School, said business had generally carried out discussions about nationalisation ­behind closed doors.

“Probably, this is due to political sensitivities and business adopting the view that actions speak louder than words,” he said.

“Any statements made are generally carefully crafted and neutral.”

He said some businesses had thought that nationalisation talk would disappear.

“Those who thought the nationalisation talk would go away are learning now that it is not and so one can expect that business will be drawn ­into it more and more.

“Business has to decide whether it will be proactive or reactive.

Ironically, they are now in a position of being reactively proactive.

But they will have to speak out,” said Skae.

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