Right of reply: ‘Subterfuge’ letter was misquoted

The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Sacci) is concerned about the factual errors, misrepresentation and biased interpretation of events contained in the article "Politicking 'amounts to subterfuge'" by Phillip de Wet, which serve to force the narrative that Sacci has been captured by narrow interests and is acting contrary to the public interest.

The article quotes (and misquotes) selectively from a letter to six government departments outlining business concerns with several government policies because of their interventionist nature. It says: "In early January … Sacci wrote to government departments to formally express concern … " and that "the letter was confidential".

Sacci sent the letters on December 10 2013 (requesting a reply by January 11 2014) and emphasised this point during the interview. There is no indication anywhere in the letter that it was confidential.

The article alleges the letter was sent to government out of concern over the financial impact of government policy on companies. The point is that the impact will be economy-wide. The article misquotes the letter to allege that "the activities of the Competition Commission" is a point of concern. The letter clearly stated the problem as "imposing burdensome conditions for merger approval by the Competition Authority".

There is a vast difference between objecting to burdensome conditions on merger approval and objecting to the activities of the Competition Commission in general.

The article implies that Sacci has considered revoking the membership of companies in the construction sector. Sacci has never considered cutting ties with these members. Thanks to their appropriate response to the competition authorities they served as examples of how to mend ways and rebuild the relationships with government and have not in any way served as context for Sacci's internal decisions on membership.

The article claims Sacci seemed to support the Gauteng freeway improvement project e-tolling system. Sacci opposed this system on principle, but did advise its members to respect the law if it was enacted. When Sanral misrepresented Sacci's position as principled support, Sacci released a statement repudiating Sanral's misrepresentation.

The reference to this event without giving any mention of Sacci's repudiation is a misrepresentation.

Sacci's views on most of these issues listed in the letter are well known and have been aired publicly.

  • Advertising and sale restriction on alcohol and tobacco: These restrictions will benefit organised criminals who deal in illicit products, fund organised crime and reduce revenue from excise taxes. Driving these products underground will create significant health and safety risks because there is no government oversight.
  • The Credit Amnesty Bill: This will reduce the information available to credit providers to score potential clients, thereby increasing the risk of credit and ultimately making credit more expensive.
  • Competition Commission: As noted above, the Sacci concern is limited to burdensome conditions for merger approval and in no way mentioned the general activities of the Competition Commission.
  • Intellectual property: The national policy on intellectual property will make it more difficult and expensive to register patents for every single sector of the economy, not only pharmaceuticals, and will reduce the property protection once awarded and thereby stifle innovation.

The article states: "Presented together … [the policies] can easily be interpreted as prime examples of government attempts to protect consumers." This implies that Sacci has been captured by narrow interest and is acting contrary to the public interest. Sacci represents business in every sector, across all sizes from SMEs to multinationals, and has affiliated chambers in every province of the country. Our comments reflect our broad membership base.

The letter explains why these policies are listed, but this is completely ignored in the article for the sake of driving the narrative. The article links the Sacci letter with the controversial public affairs engagement (PAE) proposal. The Sacci process started late in 2012 in conversations with organised business groupings, led to a members' workshop in November 2013 and, after several weeks of refinement, culminated in the letter that provided a month for the recipients to respond.

Sacci apologised when government felt time-pressured. The letter to government only requested open debate on the issues listed, without posing any demands for substantive changes to policies. Given the pedigree of this letter, it is unfair and misleading to link it to the PAE proposal.

Sacci continues to have respectful and cordial relationships with government in the national economic interest and would not act to jeopardise this.

Neren Rau is the chief executive of the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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