Malema and Mamphela set the tone for business

2013-06-21 09:03

Julius Malema and Dr Mamphela Ramphele have a lot in common. Both have launched political parties with offbeat names (EFF and Agang); both have major issues with the ruling ANC; both called on South Africans to "stand up and be counted"; both believe in “consulting widely with fellow South Africans” to determine what the public wants. Perhaps they should consider joining forces – it would be interesting to watch them try to merge their opposing economic models!

Both have attracted a healthy dose of scepticism in the media. This ranged from lack of funding, non-existent party machinery and insufficient time before the next election, to muddled mandates that borrow from the ANC Youth League and the Democratic Alliance. It is easy to criticise them for being naive or to accuse them of committing political suicide. Yet what they have set out to do is, in my books, laudable, whether we agree with their politics or not. It would have been simpler for Julius to confess his erroneous ways and publicly declare his willingness to yet again “die for Zuma” so he can re-join the ANC as a rehabilitated member. Or for Mamphela to become the new face of the Democratic Alliance. “To join is passive,” she says. But they both chose the road less travelled and to stand up for what they believe in.

There is something to be said for someone who is prepared to face ridicule or failure for something they believe in. A relevant piece of prose by former United States president Theodore Roosevelt comes to mind: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; ... who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Good stuff this.

Maybe this is what South Africa needs – fewer “cold and timid souls” and more people “in the arena” who are prepared to fight for “a worthy cause”. We need people from all walks of life prepared to stand up and be counted and do something about what they are so vocal about, whether e-tolling, climate change, corruption, school textbooks or Bafana Bafana. This is particularly relevant in the business community, where we are starved of entrepreneurial self-starters prepared to risk their reputation to realise their dreams.

Or maybe we need more business leaders prepared to pursue the “worthy cause” of breaking the lopsided stranglehold that balance sheets have on business planning. Granted, it is ultimately the bottom-line that counts, for without money there is no business. Research seems to show, however, that there is a direct link between financial performance, customer loyalty and the commitment and engagement levels of employees. This is all too frequently downplayed during boardroom deliberations, particularly during stressful economic times. Finding ways to cut costs or to better differentiate on product or price just seem more natural and logical than trying to deal with people-related intangibles.

A committed and engaged workforce will go a long way towards redressing some of the negatives on a company’s balance sheets – ask the mining industry as they are experts on this by now. Engaged workers are more productive, innovative and loyal to the organisation, and are prepared to add value, to put in that extra bit of effort. But it requires radical leaders prepared to break the mould by partnering with their workers in a form of “socially responsible capitalism” where profits are built on getting the best, not the most, out of their workers – a partnership where sustainability is ensured by creating value not just for shareholders, but also for society.

Expecting business to drastically rethink their approach towards their workforce in the current economic climate seems Utopian and about as idealistic as Julius and Mamphela’s visions for a new South Africa. But maybe Julius and Mamphela can infect the business community with their “stand up and be counted” approach towards established practices. As Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

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