Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Rupert, Zuma should meet urgently

2016-11-18 08:17
Johann Rupert

Johann Rupert

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Billionaire Johann Rupert, who has been falsely accused of blocking an attempt by the Guptas to capture National Treasury, has made some very worrying remarks about South Africa.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, which honoured him with a life time achiever award, Rupert said the rest of the world considered South Africa [economically] irrelevant. “We're not even discussed at any forum. We're fooling ourselves if we think we're part of Brics,” he said.

BRIC is the original acronym for Brazil, Russia, India and China – countries grouped by the economist Jim O’Neil a few years ago because of their high-growth potential. Rupert’s comments that we are fooling ourselves about being part of Brics means he believes our economic prospects don’t match those of the rest of the group to which South Africa is now represented by the letter “s”. 

Rupert was further quoted saying something which, under normal circumstances, should get the government scurrying around for explanation and possible solutions. He said: “And to them [the rest of the world] the dream has faded. We're on our own and we're not doing a helluva a good job.”

President Jacob Zuma and his administration should be extremely concerned about such comments from a very influential businessman who hobnobs with influential investors around the world. 

If I were the president and I took my job seriously, I would request an urgent meeting with Rupert. I would ask him why, in his view, the rest of the world thinks the South African dream has faded. At what point, I would enquire, did the dream fade, what caused it to fade and what needs to be done. 

I would enquire from Rupert bearing in mind that as president I carry the hopes and dreams of many South Africans. As Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng stated in the Nkandla judgement, citizens pin their hopes on the president, the “constitutional being”. My personal feelings towards Rupert should matter less than the dreams that should come true if business and government worked together.

The hopes and dreams have been summarised in the Constitution of the Republic. I would press Rupert, who has declared himself a “loyal businessman”, to help convince the rest of the world that the South Africa has a dream and the capacity to continuously dream afresh. 

But can such a meeting between Zuma and Rupert ever take place, after Gupta allies fingered Rupert for blocking the appointment of Des Van Rooyen as finance minister? Not when personal interest trumps the national interest. Making things more difficult is the level of mistrust between government and business leaders. It is so deep, so unnecessary and so harmful to the country’s economic progress. 

The convenient route to avoid tackling difficult issues Rupert raised is to simply ignore him. He can even be labelled as unpatriotic. He can be dismissed as a person who speaks from the advantageous point of white privilege. And, as it is fashionable among left-wing politicians, he can be called a monopoly capitalist whose monopolies are the “enemy” of the “national democratic revolution”.

Whatever Zuma decides to do, there are things you can’t take away from Rupert: he is generating wealth and has global connections. He is not parasitic to state-owned enterprises. Instead of dismissing or ignoring him, the government should claim and use his expertise and global connections for the economic development of the country. It doesn’t make sense for the government to attempt to woo foreign investors when it cannot convince local business to be confident about their own country where they are heavily invested and they have the potential to invest more. 

The government should have a frank discussion with South African businessmen, black and white, about the state of the economy. And Rupert and his fellow businessmen should also come to the party and offer constructive solutions instead of assuming the default position of business as usual.

The false show of unity when rating agencies threaten to downgrade us to junk status is shortsighted and unhelpful. As a country, we are yet to define the ideal character of the relationship between government and business. The vacuum has been filled by mistrust and suspicions.

Rupert and many like him should become South Africa’s unofficial ambassadors who do their best to market South Africa abroad. They are supposed to have regular meetings with the government to exchange notes about international trade and investment opportunities. 

However, the anger at Zuma’s leadership among business people is palpable. AngloGold Ashanti chairman Sipho Pityana has gone to the extent of calling Zuma names, in addition to demanding his resignation. Whenever he speaks in business forums he gets a standing ovation.

Pityana’s speeches against Zuma are music to the ears of an angry business community that believe Zuma’s administration is flip-flopping instead of providing political and policy certainty. If I were Zuma, I would also call Pityana to an urgent meeting to hear him out. But this won’t happen unless Zuma understands that he is the president of both those who like him and those who spit when seeing him. 

If South Africa is to make progress on all its economic priorities, it is important that business leaders like Rupert instill confidence in the country’s abilities. But they need to get a sense that the government regards them as stakeholders and their concerns are taken seriously. They are, after all, the anchor investors in South Africa without whom it would be difficult to attract foreign investments. 

Rupert’s remarks are a crass indication of low business confidence in the country. A government that has made it its mission to grow the economy and create jobs would worry when people like Rupert pick up disinterest in South Africa abroad. If the issues he raises are not addressed there will be little or no additional investment, the economy will not grow, jobs won’t be created, inequality will remain high, poverty will diminish human dignity and the legacy of apartheid will breed a populist rebellion.

Rupert’s significance in the South African economy cannot be underestimated. His companies dominate the JSE, employ thousands of people, pay billions of rands in taxes to the government and huge amounts in dividends to shareholders. Some of the companies, like luxury goods maker Richemont of which he is chairman, are listed abroad and boast global brands. This is the man who took over from his father Anton, one of the most celebrated Afrikaner industrialists.

His companies make money not only for asset managers who seek retirement returns for workers, but also foreign investors. Surely, what he says really matters. What he says gives a clue about whether or not the economy stands a chance of fulfilling Zuma’s electoral promises to create jobs and reduce poverty and inequality. 

I propose a roundtable meeting between Zuma, Rupert and Pityana. It’s urgent.

* Mkhabela is station manager at Power FM and writes a weekly column for News24.

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:    sipho pityana  |  johann rupert  |  business confidence  |  economy

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