South African business, currently basking in the glory of positive sentiment after the appointment of President Cyril Ramaphosa, has been given a second – and final – chance to increase engagement and be heard, according to Bonang Mohale, CEO of Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA).
Mohale addressed 450 leaders in business and corporate social investment (CSI) on the first day of the Trialogue Business in Society Conference in Johannesburg on Tuesday.
He reminded delegates that after democratic elections, the new government inherited a technically bankrupt country and grew the size of the economy fivefold, creating world class institutions. National Treasury had “exceptional” leadership and staff, said Mohale.
“When state capture was at its height, we were still able to function. And yet, state capture hollowed out our institutions and replaced good cops with bad cops. Public administration is now worse than what was inherited 24 years ago,” he said.
He believes that if the opportunity brought by the Ramaphosa era is not used properly, business in SA will end up in some sort of no man's land.
“As business, we must join hands with other social partners to hold elected leaders accountable and insist on being involved in policy-making.
"We need to do everything in our power not to become another failed African state," said Mohale.
"Investors want us to succeed, because they know we can realise the South Africa of Mandela’s dreams.”
Transformation 'is hard work, painful and emotive'
He commented that South Africa is good at developing plans, but lacks success in implementing and executing them.
Section 25 of the Constitution is more than adequate to address land issues; current challenges are due to prior lack of focus and the will to implement, coming from years ago.
“Transformation means together we are creating a future that has no resemblance to the past. Transformation is hard work, painful and emotive. We need to address issues such as poverty, economic equality and land, with seriousness,” said Mohale.
He said a key challenge of governance and oversight facing business boards today is that corporate decision-making should address the needs of both direct shareholders and broader stakeholder communities.
Business may talk about a concept of "shared value", for example, but needs to pay its own employees a decent wage.
“If the directors of Lonmin had walked through the shanty town of Marikana, it would have personally grieved them that their own colleagues live in such appalling squalor,” said Mohale.
He believes it is vital to address questions such as how to build a shared future in a fractured world; how to drive sustainable economic progress; how to overcome societal inequalities; and how to address the challenges of rapidly shifting technology to adequately prepare children for the future world of work.
“South Africa is the only one of 55 African countries where, when it became free, education did not improve. Education is the only thing which, with hard work, can enable a child born in Alexandra to move to Bryanston," he said.
“Excellence is about getting better today, compared to yesterday, and we are a resilient bunch. We must, as business, be genuinely obsessed with the notion of state building.”
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