Why it's time for business to stand up to the bully
On Friday, diplomats and business – from both the private and public sectors – will descend on Nasrec outside Soweto, to attend the public segments of the ANC’s policy conference.
Historically, the event is important on the ANC calendar as it is supposed to agree on and recommend a set of policy proposals for adoption at the elective conference in December.
Over time, though, the event has become a stage for ANC factions to test their strength ahead of the elective conference. This significantly reduces its value as a signal for policy direction in December and the basis for the party’s manifesto at the next general election.
To its credit, the ANC often makes available its documents for public scrutiny and discussion. This means, in theory at least, that business and the public can comment on them.
This year’s conference has been dogged by controversy. The ANC is at war with itself. Its veterans, who had asked for an introspective standalone conference to save it from implosion, are boycotting the two days they were offered, grudgingly, as a compromise ahead of the conference.
The #GuptaLeaks, hundreds of thousands of e-mails that are being drip-fed through the media, are an embarrassment to the ANC, which threatens to make the policy conference a sideshow to the never-ending state-capture saga.
As if not enough, the dominant faction threw a few curve balls on economic operators. Last week two significant policy grenades were lobbed: Public Protector Busi Mkhwebane recommended a change of the Constitution that will see the Reserve Bank deprioritise inflation targeting, and Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane released his new mining charter.
President Jacob Zuma also confirmed that, despite the economy sliding into a recession, he remains committed to building nuclear power stations.
Business can continue with its outbursts. But it will merely embolden the administration to turn up its bellicose rhetoric
State-business relations are at a fresh low. It’s three months since Pravin Gordhan, who had done a great deal in 15 months to improve relations, was sacked as finance minister.
These events have polluted what is already a toxic economic environment. As has become the custom, albeit an unhelpful one, business has reacted with hysteria to these events, including bringing litigation against Zwane.
The only parts that are useful and coherent in Zwane’s charter are the objectives and intentions. With the rest of the document being unworkable, the only inference to be drawn is that it is a ploy to force the mining industry into selling chunks of stakes to the current dominant faction as it faces defeat in the next election in 2019.
Mkhwebane has a right to recommend whatever remedies she deems fit, but they have to be based on well-reasoned grounds, as the Constitutional Court reminded this week. However, courts are there to adjudicate disputes and enforce rights; they don’t make laws.
None of these policy skirmishes are up for discussion at this week’s conference. So what would constitute a progressive posture by business towards an erratic administration?
Business can continue with its outbursts. But this won’t help SA. It will merely embolden the current administration, spurring it to turn up its bellicose rhetoric ahead of the ANC’s December conference.
At a tactical level, business needs to nuance its posture. Instead of ritual whining, it should stand up to the bully. The legal challenge by Sibanye Gold’s Neal Froneman is an example of how to deal with the harassment. He has taken legal action against Zwane and senior officials at the Department of Mineral Resources (in their personal capacities) for what he considers abuse of regulation.
At a more strategic level, business needs to do what it should have done a long time ago – take a long-term view. It needs to separate its tussles with an increasingly rogue administration from its duty to the rest of SA. For example, the business-funded initiatives to help the youth should proceed. It would be immoral to withhold them.
Business needs to start preparing for a post-Zuma SA. The formulation of such a plan should start after next week, and be finalised in December.
The ANC elective conference will mark the beginning of the end of the current policy mess. Even after its humiliating defeats, the current dominant faction will continue to string business along while pushing through costly measures such as the chaotic Mining Charter and nuclear procurement plan. But the next administration – which will most likely be a coalition (a variant that includes the ANC) – will be forced to cancel these crazy deals.
It would be myopic for business to expend its energies on shadow boxing with the government, instead of reimagining a common future plan that will reverse the legacy of the lost years.
• Dludlu is a former Sowetan editor and founder of Orwell Advisory Services.