Where on earth is business?

2011-08-06 10:39

Building a nation is hard work and South Africans are finding out just how hard it is.

After being told that they had achieved the smoothest political transition in history and were justifiably proud, South Africans have discovered that the ­transition has entered a new, rougher phase.

All of a sudden it seems as if the political miracle of the New South Africa has vanished, ­replaced instead by bitter ­squabbles over key issues, ­especially the economy.

But it is the absence of the country’s best-known business leaders from the debate that is the real shock.

It is as if they are unaware of the economic time bomb that is ticking in the country – given high unemployment, low levels of productivity and staggering economic inequality.

It is not as if the nation’s business elite have gone underground. They are still highly visible, launching corporate ­social investment programmes that often cost less than their combined company’s executive perks.

But it will take more than merely symbolic gestures from big business to get the country on the road towards sustainable prosperity.

At times, you get a sense that South Africa’s captains of industry are afraid of getting bruised in the rough world of politics.

It is difficult to explain their absence in the important social media space. Their absence means that the voices that are heard are either those of a restive majority that still has to see meaningful economic transformation, or those that try to speak on behalf of big business.

Even on radio, the only time you will catch them is if they are announcing their results or responding to journalists’ ­questions.

But this is not enough when the stakes are so high and they have only themselves to blame for not grabbing the stage in a debate that directly impacts on their future.

It may be that democracy has dulled the political instincts of South Africa’s business elite, or the new crop of business leaders don’t fully grasp the importance of influencing the economic ­debate. But this instinct was very much alive in the years ­prior to democracy, especially in the late 80s and early 90s.

Then, big business did not leave it to the politicians to shape the agenda. The likes of Clem Sunter travelled across the country armed with his “low-road” and “high-road” scenarios for a post-apartheid landscape.

Such presentations had a ­profound influence on many ­decision-makers who would have the scenarios at the back of their minds as they engaged in private and public discourse.

But now it seems that big business is content to leave the direction of the country’s future purely to formal interactions with government, and it is this ­vacuum that has emboldened politicians to shape the ­economic agenda.

This malaise within business is not evident simply in its failure to shape the direction of the economic debate, but also by the mess within its own ranks.

You need to look no further than the unseemly row between business advocacy grouping Business Unity South Africa and the Black Management Forum (BMF).

There are many of these business groupings whose acronyms may include “unity”, “management” and “leadership”; but it is the absence of these very ­qualities that should shame South African business.

The row between Busa and the BMF was important as it highlighted the extent to which politics and business is intertwined. But it also demonstrates just how out of touch South ­Africa’s business leaders are when it comes to shaping the direction of the new society.

If Washington is known for its well-organised, well-funded, highly articulate business lobby, South African business still has to wake up and get its house in order.

For now, its image and ­reputation has been reduced to no more than the occasional protests against nationalisation or “unrealistic wage demands”.

But there are other issues that ­require its urgent attention, and the absence from the ­debate concerning such issues weakens their position.

For many, it is nationalisation that may have crystallised the ­alternative directions that the ­economy may take, but there are also other issues that ­require the undivided ­attention of business.

These include skills development, closing the gap in remuneration, runaway executive pay, productivity, and attracting and retaining foreign direct investment (FDI).

South Africa has already slipped to 10th place in FDI rankings on the continent and this is likely to worsen.

The primacy of the economy in the new round of debates, and the emergence of nationalisation as the rallying call of the ANC Youth League should ­convince business that just as politicians don’t leave business to businesspeople, businesspeople shouldn’t leave the direction of economic policy to the politicians.

Business leaders need to step outside their own bubble to discover that high unemployment weakens their case for ­creating jobs. It will take more than the fragile glue of glib sound bites to piece together a united society given the reality of vastly differing expectations and needs.

Hopefully, the tensions and squabbles around the most suitable economic direction for the country will convince our business leaders that they should do more than complain feebly, but instead offer a compelling vision of the future.

Right now they are handing the debate over to those that ­offer nationalisation as a quick-fix for all socioeconomic ills.

They should not be deterred by the disappearance of political correctness from the new ­debate. After all, overtures of political reconciliation are giving way to a robust new realism.

If the first phase of our transition was about establishing political stability, the second, more turbulent phase, is about which socioeconomic direction to take.

Also, this debate is unlikely to produce any consensus, as can be seen in many older democracies where the direction of economic policy still raises as much heat as in our young democracy.

But it is time for big business in South Africa to stand up and be counted.

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