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Nedbank chief hits raw nerve

Phillip De Wet

The outrage that has been directed at Reuel Khoza's criticism of South Africa's leaders is a symptom of the gulf between business and the government.

In his books on governance and leadership, Reuel Khoza has for well over a decade, and over many thousands of words, taken on the role of a stern but kindly schoolmaster, alternating disapproval of poor performance with recommendations for improvement. Yet it took just 145 words, a small portion of his chairperson’s statement in Nedbank’s annual report, to unleash a torrent of accusation, recrimination and what bordered on outright name-calling.

It also starkly illustrated the gulf between the business sector on the one hand and the ANC and government on the other.

It remains to be seen whether the fire storm of criticism and counter-criticism that followed Khoza’s original statement causes self-censorship among those in business, or whether it will serve as an example to be emulated.

But whereas the response from the ANC and government leaders shows the taint of high emotion and a hint of populism, the broader business community has steered clear of outrage—at least in public—and opted for a kind of militant but coldly strategic approach. “Yes, sometimes we’re not vocal or aggressive enough, but as business we tend to see ourselves as having to take a more mature, long-term perspective,” said Neren Rau, chief executive of the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which represents about 20 000 businesses. “We don’t want to be cowards, but we generally have to be more circumspect than the other party, something we learn in labour negotiations, for instance.”

The chamber is among the organised business structures that believe debate is good but hostility closes doors. They have a broad consensus that getting the job done is more important than scoring points. When your constituency is shareholders, the bottom line is the metric of success and popular opinion is important only to the extent that it may influence policy and regulation and, ultimately, the ability to make money.

To lobby effectively, Rau said, the business sector needed to understand how the world works. “Throughout the world now, politics is a career,” he said. “You don’t have people doing service to their country in office for five years and then going back to business any more. If you are a politician and around the period of elections people criticise you, they are essentially threatening your job.”

By sheer coincidence, Khoza’s generalised and negative assessment was published (though written well before) just as top leaders of the ANC put on a show of unity and support for President Jacob Zuma, following a vicious broadside by suspended ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.

Organised labour, on the other hand, does not think the timing was necessarily the magic ingredient that caused the Khoza issue to flare up, but rather general frustration at business getting away with public relations murder on a regular basis.

Cosatu had some sympathy with the ANC’s reaction, said spokesperson Patrick Craven, even if the trade union group held firmly to the right of freedom of speech.

“It’s not that business doesn’t have the right to criticise, but it has far more access to the media than the workers and the poor.”

Indeed, the ANC and the government have long expressed irritation at what they see as anti-government bias in the media and what the ANC in particular sees as an inability to have its voice fairly heard.

Even without such an outlet, though, party and government officials had no trouble having their responses to Khoza—direct, personal and vicious—widely reported.

WHAT THEY SAID
Reuel Khoza
South Africa is widely recognised for its liberal and enlightened constitution, yet we observe the emergence of a strange breed of leaders who are determined to undermine the rule of law and override the Constitution. Our political leadership’s moral quotient is degenerating and we are fast losing the checks and balances that are necessary to prevent a recurrence of the past. This is not the accountable democracy for which generations suffered and fought.

The integrity, health, socioeconomic soundness and prosperity of South Africa is the collective responsibility of all citizens, corporate or individual. We have a duty to build and develop this nation and to call to book the putative leaders who, due to sheer incapacity to deal with the complexity of 21st-century governance and leadership, cannot lead. We have a duty to insist on strict adherence to the institutional forms that underpin our young democracy.

Nathi Mthethwa (police minister)
Prominent in their omission in Dr Khoza’s assessment of the challenges are the issues of persistent racialised poverty and inequality, a legacy of imperialist plunder, slave wages and racialist capitalist development and what Nedbank, among others, is doing to arrest these for a better life for all.

Understandably, the good doctor would not want to touch on these issues, lest he offend his paymasters, who I should assume are predominantly the beneficiaries of centuries of racist economic and political dispensation.

Gwede Mantashe (ANC secretary general)
I would be very worried if the business community began to think that it has a monopoly of understanding of political leadership. He is actually on the wrong platform. He must talk about business and Nedbank in particular.

Jimmy Manyi (government spokesperson)
Dr Khoza would be better off adhering to his bank’s pay-off line, “Make things happen”, rather than arguing, with no evidence proffered, that things are not happening in our country or that we are about to succumb to a “recurrence of the past”.

Is Dr Khoza’s freedom of speech likely to be followed by an exercise in freedom of association by Nedbank’s directors, shareholders and customers, who may take their ideas and business elsewhere?

Khoza, following the criticism
In a participatory democracy, debate on substantive issues heightens awareness of the many needs we have to address in the socioeconomic, business and political spheres.

I firmly believe that leadership in the public and private sectors working constructively together can make a positive contribution. Part of my life’s mission, as a citizen and a business leader, is to contribute to the upliftment of South Africa and help to achieve a better life for all.


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