The cavalcade of chaos and crises confronting South Africa right now, with electricity outages a daily grim reminder of our failing state, is probably an excellent moment to roll out the tattered red carpet in Pretoria for the visiting representative of an even more failed enterprise than our own: Russia.
The presence in our capital of its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, feted by Naledi Pandor and Cyril Ramaphosa, whose posture of indifference, at best, to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was praised by Lavrov, is the prelude to a full-scale naval exercise later this month off our shores featuring SA, Russia and China.
A veritable pariah’s alliance cemented in an effort to thumb the collective nose at the forces of the West. Never mind our trade and investment needs, the climate transition package and the risk of ending next year’s renewal of the US Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. Impulse and gesture, history and resentment trump common sense and economic necessity again, and the violation of any norms and decency undergirding our foreign policy is now complete.
As our president and his foreign minister bathe in the refulgence of Moscow-in-Pretoria, it is worth casting an eye over an interesting observation made by the ablest chronicler of the tyranny of the Soviet Union and the effects and origins of its revolution, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His views on the enablers of the descent into authoritarianism of Russia then (as now) have some salience here and now in beleaguered South Africa.
In a review on his works published last year in the New York Review of Books, just as Russia’s war in Ukraine was in its early phase, Gary Saul Morson, eminent literary critic and Slavic scholar, wrote:
“[Soviet founder V.I.] Lenin supposedly remarked that ‘when we are ready to hang the capitalists, they will sell us the rope’, but in Solzhenitsyn’s (generally accurate) account, capitalists were even more self-destructive. Wealthy businessmen and other well-placed people destined to be shot implored bloodthirsty revolutionaries to accept sizeable cash contributions. Liberal generals and admirals, who immediately proclaimed allegiance to the revolution and the new provisional government, were lynched anyway. Solzhenitsyn describes their pathetic confusion.”
One of the positives, amid the skies darkened here by Eskom and all those ANC chickens coming home to roost, is that our somewhat rickety democracy doesn’t contemplate the slaughter of government critics. But the space in which the constitution allows them to operate has, in the case of business and the private sector, been for the most part characterised by an eerie silence.
In the state capture era (also under the reign of the ANC with its active encouragement) there were a few flame-throwers not unhappy to torch the government and the scandal-strewn misrule of Jacob Zuma.
Sipho Pityana — then Business Unity president and chair of Anglo Gold Ashanti before his fall from boardroom grace, for unrelated reasons — was a standout example. Another persistent critic who continues to call out misgovernance, and has the courage to state the obvious fact that government’s failed leadership has rendered SA essentially a failed state, is Neal Froneman, CEO of mining company Sibanye-Stillwater. But these are the exceptions, which prove the rule of silence for the most part of big business on the current calamities gutting our country and robbing our citizens of a sustainable future.
Sure, some organisations like the Minerals Council, facing the disaster of our collapsed rail infrastructure, call for the head of Transnet CEO Portia Derby. But whatever her merits or demerits, she is the deployee of a government and a department which has almost total and monopolistic control of both infrastructure and the policies and practices which have destroyed so much of it. Against her appointing authority, no charge or criticism is levied.
Then we have the litigation looming against the state on its failure to provide electricity, in clear breach of its constitutional mandate. And while every citizen is poleaxed by the energy disaster here, ongoing for 17 years and now reaching a sort of grizzly endgame, it is business as a whole which suffers from lost production, shuttered supply lines and product destruction on an epic scale.
Yet on the two court cases challenging both government and Eskom’s mishandling of the energy disaster, the litigants are either political parties, civic organisations, individual businesses and organised labour. Of the business leadership organisations and the top JSE companies, there is no sign.
Then there was total silence after a slew of anti-business, Reserve Bank tampering and statist resolutions emerged from the ANC Nascrec conflab.
It could be that they are practising “quiet diplomacy” or perhaps think, as some do, that their best posture is to provide a photo opportunity for the SA government team at Davos. Or else to imagine they are “one phone call away” as a cynic described it to me “from a government minister phoning them to assist”. Of course, given the immense interference via legislation and regulation into the nook and cranny of the private sector, reticence is at one level understandable. And the adage, ‘money is a coward’, is universal in its application.
And those business leaders who have crossed the border from private to public sector and straddle the uneasy intersection between them? The sight here is not entirely flattering either.
Nedbank chair Mpho Makyana, who also moonlights as chair of Eskom, could not even bring himself to defend his own CEO Andre de Ruyter from a stinging attack by blunderbuss minister Gwede Mantashe, who accused De Ruyter of being a “traitor”. All he could do was advise a press conference mid-December: “I don’t think I am qualified to determine whether Mr De Ruyter is a traitor.” By such titans are we led. And when Mr Makyana’s bank becomes a future target for ministerial defamation? What then and who will speak out? Talk about paying for the rope for a future execution.
And on the subsequent revelation that De Ruyter was poisoned at Eskom HQ, there was no rousing defence of him, no expressions of outrage and solidarity from his own board. Good luck finding a successor.
Back in the even darker days of state capture (Zuma version) Centre for Development and Enterprise head Ann Bernstein had some choice words about the shock removal by Zuma of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in December 2015. In an article a few months later she took on the timorous response to this earthquake event by Business Leadership SA, noting “a more defensive, cautious and totally without impact statement was hard to imagine”.
For Bernstein then the posture of business was “going along to get along as participants in, and sometimes implementers of policies they believe to be misguided and damaging is probably the predominant response”.
“Others have opted for silence and withdrawal. But a lack of plain speaking does not foster effective communication … or make clear what business needs from government.”
Some seven years later we are in an economic mess which far exceeds the damage done by the firing of a single minister for even the most nefarious reasons. We are, courtesy of collapsed infrastructure and failed policy and leadership, in a dire emergency. Yet the silence of the lambs continues for the most part.
It is tempting to think that this sullen quietude at best or business complicity at worst, is simply because of the private sector’s unwillingness to speak the truth to ANC power. It was on credible accounts ever thus.
One of the few (and in truth there were not many) progressive business leaders under apartheid was Tony Bloom of Premier Group. In a tribute book about Harry Oppenheimer (another but more understated critic of NP rule and funder of the opposition), Bloom writes about how the 100 top business leaders were gathered in 1979 by president PW Botha at the Carlton Hotel. The president, cabinet, military chiefs and the full panoply of state power were on the raised stage. Below them were the business leaders.
In response to Botha’s demand for full support from the business community for government initiatives against the “external threats to the country” and the promise of unspecified future reforms, the response of the business leaders gathered beneath the stage, Bloom writes, was “carefully polite and never confrontational. Consultation, not confrontation, was the mantra”.
It would take another six years, when SA was truly hurtling over the abyss in 1985, for business to find its mojo and defy Botha with an initial visit to the ANC in exile. This set in train a series of events which led to the organisation’s unbanning five years after.
It is worth pondering just how much time is left for business leaders of the current era to confront the policies and practitioners who have presided over our current calamity, and whether and when it will ever happen. Or at least to stand up for those imperilled by failing and flailing politicians.
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA