Not enough canaries in SA’s toxic mine

2011-08-06 00:00

SAVVY businesspeople know their harshest critics can be their greatest assets. The complaining customer is the one to love: the catalysts for action, for change, for improvement. Properly handled, they can be turned into your staunchest supporters. It’s the quiet assassin, the unhappy one who leaves without a murmur, who is to be feared the most.

Perhaps our globally-focused business leaders have just become too remote because, in dealing with issues dominating our national economic debate, those in the boardroom are not serving us well.

Destructive thinking is taking hold. Without a concerted response, the implications are dire. Think Eastern Europe, USSR, India, China and other socialist states in the sixties and seventies.

Johannesburg was abuzz this week after a column by Eric Miyeni in the Sowetan newspaper. Miyeni has been fired. The subject of his ire, City Press editor Ferial Haffajee, says that she will sue the intemperate scribbler. Miyeni says he’s going to sue the Sowetan, and the ANC Youth League’s loudhailer has also weighed in, proclaiming the country needs more Miyenis, less Haffajees.

In the furore, it’s easy to forget the reason for all the fuss. Miyeni’s diatribe was an over-the-top response to Haffajee’s newspaper blowing open the previously secret trust that funds ANCYL chief Julius Malema — he who grabbed the spotlight after bulldozing a perfectly livable R3 million home to replace it with his proposed R16 million palace.

It’s a project that should be far out of reach for a public figure with a claimed salary of R25 000 a month. The country wants to know how Malema got the money for his new abode. City Presss investigative team says it found out, and duly published the information.

Enter Miyeni. Perhaps his was the simple function of a loyal cadre. Or perhaps there is something more sinister at play. Either way, the argument has degenerated into a personal slanging match. What’s not being addressed is the core of Miyeni’s argument, an obvious regurgitation of the ANCYL’s economic thinking. Which, when you cut through the verbiage, is: What the hell is wrong with Malema getting money from those winning government tenders?

I kid you not. Much as it sounds like the suggestion of an idiot, this is not exactly the ranting of a few inside the Cuckoo’s Nest. Many believe that Miyeni’s argument has credence. Which, put differently, means that they truly believe reciprocal “support” after receiving a government tender is okay. One person’s bribe is clearly another’s way of just expressing appreciation. Miyeni justifies it thus: “White South African business is locking black people out — the only real source of business for us is our government.” And without these such payments “where should black politicians get financial support?”

After you’ve passed the vomit bag, take a deep breath. These warped ideas are not whispered among thieves in secret dens. This was a public proclamation in a mass-market newspaper. And equally publicly re-inforced by the ruling party’s next generation of leaders who now demand to know why the Sowetan’s editors dared fire Miyeni.

The reaction from organised business has been consistent with its limp-wristed approach of the past. It has gone underground. Those in executive suites like to joke about Malema’s intellectual deficiencies. But they don’t engage with him or his growing constituency. They half-heartedly lobby ANC elders to change insane labour laws which keep the next generation out of the virtuous circle of employment, depriving them of hope. But they simultaneously ignore the ideological cancer spreading among young people. Despite an obvious and irresistible case — who builds wealth, who pays taxes, who creates jobs — business is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary South Africans through inept or misguided communication.

So myths, based on ignorance, become the reality for an ever-growing number of young people.

It is not enough to sit back and hope sanity will prevail. Many of the country’s brightest young minds now quote Marx and Engels as missionaries do the Gospels. They have no conception of how these misguided super comrades brought misery to millions. To them, any such observations are a capitalist (read business) plot to obscure the utopian truth.

Celebrated entrepreneur Herman Mashaba put it best when in an interview last month he claimed: “Business people, employers, are actually regarded as enemies of the people. If you really listen to the statements on a daily basis … labour are the good guys and business is the enemy of the people. For me, it’s a very dangerous situation we’re creating.” Herman seems to be the only canary in our toxic coalmine. What will it take for others to join him?

Alec Hogg is the founder of Moneyweb. He lives with his artist wife Jeanette at Graceland Farm near Mooi River. Follow him at or friend him at


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