Mixed reactions to business sector letter to state
"Releasing a statement that says they are going to work toward arresting the situation isn’t something magical that will solve everything," said Ebrahim Fakir, political analyst at the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa.
On Sunday, over 30 prominent business figures from several companies called for the country’s companies to work together to prevent South Africa’s economic decline.
In an open letter published in weekend newspapers, the chairpersons and chief executives offered assistance to the state in squaring up to its challenges, but called on it to do more to ensure their policies are implemented and the National Development Plan (NDP) is followed.
Among the signatories were acting Lonmin chief executive Simon Scott, Gold Fields chief executive Nick Holland, AngloGold Ashanti chief executive Mark Cutifani, Nedbank Group chief executive Mike Brown, Investec chief executive Stephen Koseff, Shell South Africa chairperson, Black Management Forum president Bonang Mohale and newly appointed Telkom chairperson Jabu Mabuza.
The group further warned the country could "unravel" if challenges in education, corruption and unemployment were left unchecked.
“There is an urgent need to put our country back on track to realise our economic and social potential,” reads the statement.
The statement comes less than a week before the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung, where discussions will be held over the country’s future policy decisions.
“I don’t think they’ve had a proper look at what is causing South Africa’s decline – it’s not just a perception issue,” Fakir said.
Fakir said business has been “complicit and guilty” in the country’s decline, in that they have shied away from local investment. "You could effectively call it an investment strike by South African business. If we continue in that way, no statement will ever change things," he added.
Fakir was referring to South African corporate savings, which are currently at a multi-decade high.
The South African corporate sector was sitting on roughly R520-billion in mid-2012 - the highest levels since 1995.
”Hopefully they have a sober look at what they can do from a structural perspective to address the problems we have,” Fakir said.
Fakir argued that business could assist in turning around the country’s economic fortunes through the expansion of services, more concentration on research and development, the introduction of new products and a focus on job creation.
“Business can do simple things that can be translated into major improvements if they are handled properly,” he added.
Fakir’s stance is mostly supported by the ANC. "Business has played their part, but they’ve been very conservative,” ruling party spokesperson Keith Khoza told the M&G.
Khoza said that while the weekend statement was a “step in the right direction”, more tangible actions needed to be undertaken. “There needs to be massive reinvestment and a collaborative effort from all parties to ensure our success,” he said.
“It is not only the responsibility of government to create jobs and build our economy.”
Khoza argued that business needs to pay special attention to beneficiation, in order to develop the production industry in South Africa.
“We need to build on our past successes thus far by changing the way we do business going forward,” Khoza said.
But, even though there is an argument for more investment into the economy from local business, there is a school of thought that argues government should provide more favourable conditions for investment.
“Business is facing an enormous amount of uncertainty,” Chris Hart, chief economist at Investment Solutions told the M&G. "For them to increase their investment they’d need support from government in some way or another.”
Hart said policy instability and uncertainty over the country’s political future has led to business to shy away from pouring money back into the economy. He added that currently the relationship between the two was one of “antagonism and suspicion".
“For us to move forward, we need to have less animosity,” he said.
“Business is already a massive investor in the economy and it isn't given enough credit for that.”
Acting government spokesperson Phumla Williams was unwilling to comment on the statement at this stage. "We will probably respond to that letter later this week, as it involves a lot of departments so I can’t say anything now," Williams told the M&G.
A previous version of this story incorrectly states that the government called on business to invest in the economy. This should, in fact, read the ANC called on business to invest in the economy.