Mpumelelo Mkhabela: Business has done it before, and can save SA again

29/09/2017 | By Admin

When the song dedel’abanye(make way for others), reverberated at a marquee at the University of Limpopo in December 2007, it not only served as a pointed message to President Thabo Mbeki to make way for Jacob Zuma. It also triggered tectonic shifts in South African politics.

Jacob Zuma got his way. And what a way it is!

Now, Zuma is the unwitting author of the new shifts that have taken place in many aspects of South Africa’s social, political, moral and economic life. Of all the shifts, one is a striking reminder of our past: the political role of the business sector.

When Zuma – obviously with a strong mandate from Saxonwold – fired Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas, people took to the streets. Business supported the move. In an untypical move from a sector that usually complains about strikes, companies offered to release employees to join in the anti-Zuma protests led by opposition parties and civil society.

When Cosatu belatedly decided to add its voice of discontent recently, it was not short of moral support from business.

Business Leadership SA, an umbrella body representing some of the top local and international companies, continues to be vocal against Zuma and state capture.

The only business people who don’t applaud anti-corruption activism are those who don’t know the pain of creating wealth; all they do is pilfer the taxes paid by those who generate wealth.

Business Leadership SA, an organisation of genuine businesses, has gone to the extent of expelling those among its ranks who are tainted by allegations of corruption and state capture.

The organisation has signed a public pledge to uphold the laws of the country and to fight corruption. Triggered by the Zuma corruption, this initiative and the calls for him to step down are changing the political landscape of the country. Their impact will be felt for many years to come.

Zuma’s government and his party, the ANC, should consider reading a bit on the history of South Africa. There is consistency about the role of business in politics: when the economy is in decline, poverty is on the rise and business profits are under threat, it has always been business who, using its resources and proximity to government, would appeal for change.

The negotiations between the National Party and the ANC were made possible partly by the economic squeeze that business was feeling. The consumer boycotts and international sanctions made it difficult for businesses to operate. As the wave of economic globalisation was sweeping over the world economy, South Africa was left behind, isolated.

The National Party government, ever convinced of its God-given right to oppress the majority of citizens, would have continued with its perilous policies even as the country became increasingly ungovernable due to intensification of the struggle against apartheid. But pressure from the business community, feeling the heat of the anti-apartheid protests itself, hastened change.

The government knew that a weak business sector inevitably meant a weak government. So, business leaders spoke out about the dire situation. Although business leaders have always supported exploitative policies that enabled them to profit more, the support was not permanent. Once their interests were threatened, they were the first to revolt.

When Prime Minister Dr Hendrik Verwoerd’s policies were wreaking havoc and the isolation of the apartheid regime intensified, business people met and adopted a resolution calling for his resignation. Some of them called it a patriotic revolt. They demanded political reforms. Verwoerd and his cabinet were forced to quit.

As unemployment soared, poverty rates increased, farm produce was rotting because of sanctions and the voice of the business community became louder, he had no option. His successor Dr Johannes van Wyk blamed the ravaging poverty on the failure of the international community to understand the imperative for racial discrimination in South Africa. He announced meaningless cosmetic changes to enforce the homeland system to appease the international community.

His irrational refusal to embrace fundamental change led to the intensification of the struggle against the apartheid system locally and internationally. Years later, when PW Botha showed his intransigence the business community pressed for change. And change eventually came.

By 1994, the country was technically bankrupt. The apartheid government bequeathed the democratic government a huge debt. The Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki administrations fixed the finances, reformed the South African Revenue Service, corporatised the Public Investment Corporation and improved the nation’s credit ratings.

In a way, the private sector reaped the fruits of their protest. Business boomed. Tax collections shot up. The fiscal deficit turned into a fiscal surplus. A huge middle class sprung up. Social grants were expanded. And companies even publicly donated money to political parties when we celebrated 10 years of democracy. The lion’s share of the donations went to the ANC. It was a huge applause of the manner in which the governing party had managed the economy.

But the poverty among black people needed more than that. Fundamental structural reforms had been slow. Poverty and unemployment among black people continued. Many continued to rely on the state for support. Aspirant black entrepreneurs looked to the state to assist.

The last thing South Africa needed was capture of the state by foreigners who steal from genuine South African entrepreneurs using state institutions as thieving machinery.

Genuine business leaders would have none of it. As it has happened in the past, they are advocating for political change. We are back to the past – albeit in a totally different context.

– Mkhabela is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn) at the University of Pretoria.

Published in News24 (29 September 2017)