Overlooking Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden in Cape Town beside a cedar tree is the grave of its visionary founder, Harold Pearson. His epitaph, with a bow to Sir Christopher Wren, reads, “If ye seek his monument look around you.’’
Pearson, who died at just 46 in 1916, did not live to see how, more than a century after its founding, Kirstenbosch and the trees and plants he collected would still enchant, thrive and evolve.
Obituaries on the death last week of Pick n Pay founder Raymond Ackerman, at the grand age of 92, was a reminder that imaginative flair, bold application and entrepreneurial hard work matched to social purpose, will allow his bricks-and-mortar retail monuments and sustainable philanthropy to outlive their creator for generations hence.
Less certain, in the realm of politics, is to imagine the epitaph of the ANC. It too boasts of its longevity — 111 years since its founding — but has little to say of the “future business”. And when it is finally ejected from power this failure will outlive its storied past by some measure and on most metrics.
Since the next election, not the offer of future history, is what matters to politicians, the ANC’s raison d’être nowadays is to relitigate the past. It blames every failure for its governance, from lethal firetrap buildings and exploding methane gas pipes in Johannesburg to the macro collapse of economic growth and the micro factors that aggravate this — the ruin of municipalities, rail, electricity, the post office, the ports and water provision, Land Bank, SABC et al — on its vanquished predecessor. Or on global conditions beyond its control.
Wilful blindness and ignoring its own 29-plus years of uninterrupted power since 1994, and the choices it made and, crucially, did not make in this time, is all about casting about for an alibi, not setting a course correction or introspecting. The exception is where extreme necessity, such as stage 6 load-shedding, porous borders and shuttered container terminals, force a government that fetishises state control to seek, behind hidden hand and shuffling foot, rescue by the business sector.
Quite how the voters in 2024 will respond to this blame-shifting and buck-passing is, according to polls, unclear. Perhaps, with plunging voter participation, a continuing scar on the electoral landscape, likely to reach new depths next year, most have simply switched off and tuned out.
The private sector is the one functioning area that, despite every obstacle thrown at it by a government whose incompetence and lethargy are matched only by its ideological zeal for ever more control over business, still literally keeps the lights on. And here the polls are crystal clear: a survey by Edelman Trust Barometer in February found while trust levels in government had plummeted to just 22% of South Africans, 62% of local respondents trust the business sector.
Strikingly and recently, business’ disparate leadership — outside the circle of rent-seekers and tenderpreneurs, who abound — has indicated a step change away from its traditional post-1994 state deference and political shyness. Earlier in 2023 the scion of the Ackerman family, Gareth Ackerman, who stepped into his father’s shoes as chair of the retail giant in 2010, gave voice to this. He lacerated the government for its pro-Russia dalliance as “beyond understanding” and had choice words for its antigrowth policies and practices.
Some commentators noted that his critique provided Pick n Pay with its own alibi for “the worst results in the company’s history” accompanying his remarks. Except that his commentary has been echoed or anticipated by a slew of other heads of corporates, from MTN to First Rand, Anglo American, Ninety One and Royal Bafokeng.
While some business leaders have been recent converts to the currency of plain speaking and stringently demanding a change of approach by the government, Sibanye-Stillwater’s Neal Froneman was a pioneering outlier. Two years ago, before it became the corporate fashion, he warned of the risk of a failed state, saying SA was becoming “too risky to invest in”. He had no problem identifying the culprits astride the state who constructed it.
Little wonder then that one of the chief gravediggers of the mining industry, mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe, blamed “captains of industry badmouthing the country” as we plunged into the bottom league of attractive mining investor countries. The “dead cat” strategy of blame deflection has no finer exponent.
But “Captain” Froneman, who probably wears Mantashe’s scorn as a badge of honour, put his hand up — with other business leaders — to help salvage the state from itself by heading one of the government-business “workstreams” to staunch the crises engulfing the country. Froneman offered two useful insights in Business Day recently (“Reflections on four years at Marikana”, August 15).
He said assisting in the state salvage operation is driven by necessity and does not amount to bailing out the ANC for next year’s poll. “The state is now emasculated, and as such through public-private partnership the private sector now has the ability to make a difference.” In similar vein, Standard Bank CEO Lungisa Fuzile commented on this initiative: “I am not doing this for the governing party. I’m doing this for SA.”
Such a necessary and crucial distinction is often lost when the same governing party conflates party and state into one, a key explainer of many of the difficulties business leaders have now been inspanned to correct. That is why Froneman’s second insight goes further.
He wrote: “Business now needs to look beyond the present and think about relationships with the government in future … We need to start paying attention not only to working with the governing party of today but also to the parties that might be part of a governing coalition of the future. We need to begin offering them support and giving them direction in the spheres that continue to be of interest to us.”
This future-facing position, an admirable mix of self and country interest, should, as his earlier warnings did, act as a clarion call to the business community to look beyond the mess of the present to the prospects of a more hopeful future. And to engage with those who will shape it. It certainly trumps the idea of voting for a better yesterday.