When CEOs call themselves activists and activists become CEOs

We knew even before Marikana that we live in one of the most unequal societies in the world. It shouldn’t surprise us that CEOs earn far more than workers, but what should is the fact that CEOs have now become part of activism culture in South Africa, despite their own complicity in furthering the gap.

Earlier this year, Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg was shut down so that CEOs could pretend they are homeless to raise money for poor people. Some of South Africa’s richest men and women donned their warmest K-Way jerseys and took selfies as they prepared to brace the wintry night.

The event drew outrage from those who criticised it as poverty porn, while others applauded participants for raising R46-million.

A few months later, CEOs would rub shoulders with ANC stalwarts as they united to Save South Africa from President Jacob Zuma and the Guptas. While struggle activists spoke of the need to help the country, Goldman Sachs CEO Colin Coleman sat in the front row. Black workers in different sectors have been protesting for fair wages for many years, but it’s a wonder where these CEOs were when protests were underway.

This week, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa proposed that R3 500 be the national minimum wage. The announcement collided with the release of a report from Bloomberg, which ranked South Africa as the number one country in the world where CEOs earn more than the average worker.

In our nation, Bloomberg found, South African CEOs earn 500 times more than the average labourer.

Yet still, workers rights weren’t exactly trending on social media or any of the other platforms South Africans use to engage. They haven’t been for some time now even though the struggle of black workers is closely tied to political, economic and social liberation in South Africa’s history. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) contributed greatly to the demise of apartheid, as black workers downed tools in protest. 

“In a country that is Africa’s most industrialised nation, the challenge now posed by black unions is profound, holding out the possibility of a large-scale withdrawal of labour from a modern economy that is increasingly dependent on black skills,” Alan Cowell wrote for the New York Times in 1986 during apartheid.

Despite what Trevor Noah reportedly said to Americans about how the apartheid government gave in out of “shame”, many of us will know better. International boycotts and divestment were crippling the economy. The shuffle of paper money was more seductive than the noise of black workers.

At the time Cowell published his New York Times piece, Cosatu was a few months shy of celebrating its first birthday. It had at least 500 000 black workers in its ranks.

Today, Ramaphosa, who helped organise the formation of Cosatu, is asking us to accept R3 500 as the national minimum wage. It’s impossible to forget his ties to Lonmin and Marikana too.

If that R3 500 increases any more, it has been said that the cost will be the jobs of those who can barely afford to live, rather than the salaries of the CEOs and board members who earn 500 times more. Job losses are a dire concern in a country close to junk status where millions are unemployed. But there are also more than 5 million South Africans who find themselves in jobs that keep them in poverty.

Sipho Pityana, an ANC anti-apartheid stalwart, is now chairperson of Anglo Gold Ashanti’s board while simultaneously a leader of the Save South Africa group. Jay Naidoo, Cosatu’s first general secretary who’s never shy of words on South Africa’s defunct leadership and inequality, has been described by Forbes as a “hugely successful South African businessman“.

We have our Johann Ruperts, our Oppenheimers and our Whitey Bassons who calmly rake in billions while a young black man will earn a R1 800 salary to pack shopping bags so he can afford education.

So, when did CEOs get to participate in activism in our country as if their income is not part of the problem? And when did our liberation activists who fought against capitalism become capitalists themselves?

Of course, CEOs can become activists. Their civil rights are enshrined in the Constitution like every person who lives in South Africa. But perhaps their activism should start with their own pockets.

For years, there has been talk of the rise of shareholder activism – where shareholders use their access to a company’s financial records to apply pressure for better corporate governance and ethics. These shareholder “activists” can also use what they know to try to increase their own profits. The choice they make in what they will do with their information is perhaps a matter of conscience and a measure of greed over humanity.

While black workers continue to protest for a decent living wage, however, it is difficult to accept CEOs as activists who are trying to help our country when their pockets grow heavy with the nation’s inequality. Their role in activism might help them feel they have helped society, but it does little to eradicate structural inequality, where wealth is unevenly distributed. It is also difficult to ignore that generational wealth has protected many white families, while people are still the labour force. The only way CEOs can be taken seriously is if tthey were to acknowledge their own role in inequality and commit to taking action. 

The income gap between workers and CEOs shouldn’t surprise us, but the way CEOs have tried to use activism to make us, and perhaps even themselves, forget it should.  

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Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

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