Suspicion of business is worrying

2012-10-18 00:00

I AM a disciple of Mamphela Ramphele and I wish she were prominently placed in the political leadership of the country. I concede that, no less than any other person, I am very susceptible to the influence of people who say what I would rather hear.

Conversely, we do not particularly enjoy hearing contrary views because our predetermination of what is right is stronger than the openness of our minds.

At the recent convention of the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SACCI), Ramphele was at her best, chastising citizens and, significantly, business, for not exercising their rights to make demands on an elected government and to hold it accountable.

Much of what she said was about leadership, order, appalling education and the compromise of constitutional principles. The audience, predominantly businesspeople of course, applauded with such enthusiasm that it was difficult to imagine that anyone present disagreed with her, notwithstanding her slights about the absence of corporate leadership in the national socioeconomic and political paradigms.

Just a day or two later, she was Xolani Gwala’s guest on SAfm. While some of the people who phoned in identified with her views, a significant number, as far as I heard, took umbrage at what they perceived to be her anti-ANC stance.

They condemned her roundly — in the way that tends to happen to people who were equally active in the struggle but now express their disappointment at the way in which the ANC has managed the transition from liberation agent to ruling party.

It was sad listening to people who were dogged in their defence of the governing party, even in the face of contrary reality.

What made me sad was not so much people’s persistent defence of what is not defendable (I am no less guilty of chauvinism myself), but the clear divisions that exist in our society, particularly that between business and the rest.

One has to wonder what the country’s economic future holds when there are such divergent views.

Recent events have shown that employers and employees are the proverbial miles apart, and moving further adrift all the time.

Strikes are all about gaining sympathy, the moral high ground, since this adds to the pressure on the other party to yield if it can be achieved.

There is renewed vigour in the brinkmanship which, history teaches us, is a precursor to crisis. In the public domain, employers can rely on the support of business and people who understand economics and investment, and a part of the general public that is aggravated by disorder and inconvenience, and, perhaps, a predisposition against workers and unions, but the majority of voters share the frustration of workers and have little trust in business.

That business should be perceived as a homogeneous group defies reality. There is good business and there is bad business, and bad business pretending to be good. Tenderpreneurs, the class of business people that seems to be uniquely South African (I’m quite sure it’s not), are part of the private sector, whether we like it or not.

Exploitation of government deficiencies to make enhanced profits is no less business-like than exploitation of the consumer market to achieve the same outcome.

The difference is that the market, at its best, will exercise constraints, while government spending has only an indirect impact on remote pockets, thus reducing the presence of prudent controls.

Under the circumstances, it is a commendable development that governance frameworks, as put in place by King III, the new Companies Act and JSE regulations, compel companies to conduct their business more transparently and more ethically.

Large companies must form social and ethics committees to monitor their consciences and their compliance with contemporary expectations of good business practice.

I heard a presenter, who had been a participant in the discussions leading to the adoption of the Companies Act, say recently that the original draft had required all companies of size to have union representatives on their boards. Social and ethics committees, apparently, were a compromise position, raising the interesting inference that social conscience and ethics are seen to lie within trade unions rather than business!

Moral high ground should not be confused with legality, however, and in the bitter struggle between workers and employers, there is a legal framework that requires respect and enforcement, as well as intensive introspection on the part of both parties regarding trustworthiness.


• Andrew Layman is the CEO of the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry.


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