In a year that was truly stranger than fiction, big business found its voice and piled into politically sticky situations it has traditionally shied away from.
Activist movements sprang up from the private sector, some of which called very publicly for President Jacob Zuma to step down. At the same time, business accompanied government and labour on road shows to put jittery investors at ease.
And when the finance minister — who had risen up the ranks through the South African Communist Party — was charged with fraud, prominent business leaders pledged to support him when he had his day in court.
Undoubtedly, it is no longer business as usual.
“Business was rudely awakened out of its slumber by the 9/12 event,” said businessperson and convener of the Save South Africa campaign, Sipho Pityana.
On December 9 last year, Zuma sent shock waves through South Africa when he removed finance minister Nhlanhla Nene from his post and replaced him with parliamentary backbencher Des van Rooyen. Markets went into free fall and, in the space of one weekend, Zuma was pressured into reappointing Pravin Gordhan to the post to contain the damage.
“We thought we were in conversation with government around some of the difficult issues with the ANC, and we thought there was an understanding of the need to deal with these issues,” recalled Pityana, who is also an ANC stalwart.
Jabu Mabuza, chair of Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA), president of Business Unity South Africa (Busa) and convener of the CEO Initiative, also views December last year as a turning point. “At the end of 2015, business leaders realised that we needed to put our differences aside and begin to work towards our common goal of creating a more sustainable and equal country, guided by the values of our hard-won constitutional democracy,” he said.
Pityana said business was defensive and conservative by nature, and was reluctant to come across as imposing its views on the government, but that had changed.
Part of the impetus came from a strategy developed by BLSA following discussions about why business was always reactive to what was proposed by the government and labour, instead of being proactive.
“One of the major shifts is a recognition that we need to be sensitive to the issues and engage with people on issues related to the broader economy,” Pityana said.
This year, he said, business also found a new appreciation for the impact corruption was having on institutions such as the South African Revenue Service and the National Prosecuting Authority.
Mabuza said the CEO Initiative, BLSA and Busa had decided to take a strong, public and principled stand on the importance of upholding of the Constitution, the independence of state institutions and rational policymaking, in the national interest.
“This is not only our right [especially with corporate taxes contributing 20% to government revenues] but indeed our responsibility. Together with other willing sectors of our society and fellow citizens, business is a joint custodian of our democracy,” he said.
Mabuza said BLSA has been working with civil society bodies to develop proposals to prevent corruption in the private sector and to review the governance of state-owned entities.
On November 2, Mabuza noted, organised labour took a public and principled position when some 40 business leaders joined activists and religious leaders in Pretoria to make a statement on the importance of respecting the Constitution and maintaining the independence of state institutions.
For the first time, Pityana pointed out, BLSA joined Corruption Watch in running a campaign around the appointment of the new public protector.
To a degree, considering that a loss of investor confidence and corrupted institutions would affect business, Pityana said the private sector had selfish interests for getting involved in agitating for clean governance. Previously they would have ignored similar red flags, he noted.
Joanne Yawitch, the chief executive of the National Business Initiative, said there was a stronger business case than before for the private sector to play a more active role in society.
“We say business can’t succeed in a failing society,” said Yawitch. “A stable operating environment is critical for business. Business can’t stand by … it has an increasingly important role to play.”
Stability, she noted, was good for everyone because investor confidence and strong institutions would serve all South Africans well.
As the call for free and decolonised higher education shut down campuses across the country, the private sector again sought to get involved.
Ahmed Bawa, chief executive of Universities South Africa, said the private sector had recognised the crisis facing the universities this year and the repercussions it would have for business.
“I think everybody understood the higher education sector was under pressure and there was a danger we could lose the academic year,” said Bawa. “The universities are fundamental to the success of the private sector in terms of the research they do and human resource development.”
Universities produce some 42 000 graduates a year in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines, he said.
“Several meetings were held with the private sector to understand if there were ways to get the private sector to make an impact. We have had very significant discussions with BLSA,” said Bawa.
Corporates such as Absa pledged to donate millions to various campuses to fund students who were academically deserving but could not finance their studies.
Mabuza said business was involved in the Nedlac (National Economic Development and Labour Council)talks on the crisis in higher education and in a number of other initiatives to increase access to, and transform, post-school education.
Globally, Yawitch said the United Nations had been advocating for corporates to play a more positive and very different role in society to what they traditionally have.
For example, the private sector was helping to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change by providing financing for projects, she said. The ambitious sustainable development goals for 2030 also recognise the need for public-private partnerships.
Pityana said he did not see business’s new voice as being driven by global considerations but rather as being prompted by a leadership void in the South African polity.
The death of hegemony in the political system, he said, had made way for a diversity of voices to be heard.