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Many people are now left with no choice but to face economic fears without a trust safety net. Distrust breeds polarisation and polarisation worsens fears, where many see deep divisions and don’t think that we will ever get past them, writes Bonang Mohale.

On the eve of 30 years into democracy, it is apt to remind ourselves of what the longest-serving President of the ANC, Oliver Reginald Tambo, opined in Angola in 1977: “Comrades, you might think that it is very difficult to wage a liberation struggle. Wait until you are in power. I might be dead by then. At that stage, you will realise that it is actually more difficult to keep the power than to wage a liberation war. People will be expecting a lot of services from you. You will have to satisfy the various demands of the masses of our people. In the process, be prepared to learn from other people’s revolutions. Learn from the enemy also. The enemy is not necessarily doing everything wrongly. You may take his right tactics and use them to your advantage. At the same time, avoid repeating the enemy’s mistakes.”

How so very prophetic, as all the matrixes are pointing in the wrong directions and thereby proving beyond any shadow of doubt that South Africa is on a slippery slide to the slope of misery and wasteland.

This country was birthed with so much global goodwill and so many are still heavily invested in our prosperity. And yet this country held so much promise and hope, not just for South Africa but the aspirations of the whole African continent. Hope that it is possible to have, at least one of our own that will puncture the inflated fallacies, disprove the negative perceptions and negate the narrative of yet another failed African country—characterised by internecine strife, wars, famine, drought, greed, and coup d’états.

It is now self-evident that we were so eager and desperate to attain our political office that we did not think deeply and profoundly about how we are going to use this office to fundamentally transform the economic system—pretty much like a dog chasing a car—to facilitate the participation of the majority of our people in order for them to simply reach their (not even fullest) potential, reclaim their self-worth and self-respect. Because there is no nobility in being poor.

More than five years ago, when the late Dr Jabulane Albert Mabuza handed over the baton of the Business Unity South Africa (Busa) presidency to Dr Sipho Mila Pityana at The Palazzo, Montecasino, he lamented the fact that he was not successful in bringing back the Black Business Council (BBC) into Busa.

Considering the criticality of a united and single voice of business, this primary objective must not be left to die. It is not sustainable that big business is still largely white and rich whilst black business is still largely small and struggling. No wonder, that 29 years into democracy, poverty still has primarily a black and feminine face.

Business, therefore is not South Africa’s second but last chance, especially because in the 20th anniversary of the Edelman Trust Barometer 2023 which focuses on ‘navigating a polarised world’. The survey highlights four forces that lead to polarisation:

  • Economic anxieties (economic optimism is collapsing around the world, with 24 of 28 countries seeing all-time lows in the number of people who think their families will be better off in five years);
  • Institutional imbalance (business is now the sole institution seen as competent and ethical, government is viewed as unethical and incompetent. Business is under pressure to step into the void left by government);
  • Mass-class divide (people in the top quartile of income live in a different trust reality than those in the bottom quartile, with massive gaps in Thailand, the United States and Saudi Arabia); and
  • The battle for truth (a shared media environment has given way to echo chambers, making it harder to collaboratively solve problems. Media is not trusted, with especially low trust in social media).

Many people are now left with no choice but to face economic fears without a trust safety net. They see the social fabric continuing to weaken, where ideology becomes an identity where few people would help, live or work with the other side. Distrust breeds polarisation and polarisation worsens fears, where many see deep divisions and don’t think that we will ever get past them.

What business can do to garner trust

First is to concede that none of us has succeeded in eliminating the legacy of the 48 years of institutionalised apartheid (on top of the 98 years of separate development and 370 years of colonialism).

The economic power patterns have been set for generations to come unless we break this cycle of screaming violence and brutality of poverty—the self-perpetuating, vicious cycle of abject poverty.

You just have to be born black and the chances are that you are condemned to live in the squalor of Alexander, if you are the lucky one. And you just have to be born white and the chances are that you are destined for the leafy suburbs of Bryanston if you are the unlucky one. The scenario must look different if we are to break the cycle that a poor black mother begets poor black children.

Second is to accept that, not only did some business benefit from State Capture but that others actively agitated and orchestrated for it, as called out by name in the Zondo Report.

Third is to stop the enablers of this poverty. Just imagine how far we could be, as a people with great natural endowments if business complied with the laws of this country and actively and proactively supported transformation. Since the 1970s, we embarked on:

  • The Ford Motor Corporation’s Chairman, Rev Leon Sullivan’s Equal Employment Opportunities (following The Sullivan Principles);
  • Diversity and Inclusion (DEI);
  • Affirmative Action;
  • Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) Act;
  • Codes of Good Practice (CoGP);
  • The 1998 Skills Development (SD) Act and the 1998 Employment Equity (EE) Act; and
  • The Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) Act 53 of 2003.

All these transformative instruments were and still are intended to establish a legislative framework for the promotion of black economic empowerment, thereby ensuring that this economy is broadly reflective of the demographics and pragmatically and tangibly contributing to nation-building and social cohesion.

Business must make every effort to pay small and medium enterprises in 30 days, at the latest; implement, not just gender equality and gender pay parity but gender justice; stop fronting and intentionally surrounding themselves with docile, conforming creatures who can’t even say boo to a goose.

With the powder keg of youth unemployment that threatened to reach 74.6% at its peak, business can’t continue to bring back employees that have reached retirement age simply because of bad planning on their part as the retirement date of every employee is known at the point of employment. Imagine if business were, not only to sign (not the non-racism) the anti-racism pledge but deliver anti-racist outcomes. Especially because equality is not justice. Instead of business continuing to fund political parties commensurate to their representation, imagine if business insisted on only funding parties that prioritise good governance, service delivery, transformation, law and order, and safety and security at the heart of ethical leadership.

Bonang Mohale is the President of Business Unity South Africa (Busa), Chancellor of the University of the Free State, Professor of Practice in the Johannesburg Business School (JBS) College of Business and Economics, and Chairman of both The Bidvest Group Limited and SBV Services.

This article first appeared on Daily Maverick and is published with permission.