Illustration: KAREN MOOLMAN
Illustration: KAREN MOOLMAN

Moments of crisis can provide an opportunity for public-spirited business leaders — corporate statesmen and women — to work with governments in navigating storms and finding solutions to complex social and economic challenges. They are driven by enlightened self-interest, and often go against the grain of a business status quo that is fixated on the bottom line.

SA yearns for a breed of corporate statespeople who not only believe business leaders ought to play an active role in shaping major issues facing their nation but who also conceive the destinies of business and government as inextricably intertwined. That type of leader is rare in SA today.

In the past, SA had corporate statespeople who sought to grapple with the challenges facing their generation. One such leader was Anton Rupert. In his memoirs, Priorities for Co-existence, Rupert observed that SA’s future will be “determined by the quality of the people the country produces and the manner in which they are going to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances — people of quality who do more than is expected of them, who give more than they receive, who are prepared to create more than they demand.”

A founding member of the World Wildlife Fund, Rupert played a leading role in the establishment of trans-frontier parks. Along with Harry Oppenheimer and other business magnates, he set up the Urban Foundation in the wake of the Soweto riots in 1976, with the aim of improving the social and industrial circumstances of urban black people in SA. He also provided seed capital towards the creation of the Small Business Development Corporation in 1979, designed to stimulate entrepreneurship among black communities, especially in Soweto. This gesture catalysed the Industrial Development Corporation’s first investment in building industrial parks in Soweto.

Another corporate statesperson was the late Gavin Relly. In 1985 Relly, then chair of the Anglo American Corporation, led a delegation of business leaders to meet the outlawed ANC in Lusaka. He did this in defiance of former president PW Botha and other National Party leaders, who had ordered him not to undertake the visit.     

Relly’s approach was predicated on two pillars: a forceful public diplomacy and scenario planning strategy to promote the liberalisation of the country’s political order, and engagement with the ANC in exile. It was a strategy that encapsulated Anglo American’s self-interest while also seeking to contribute towards breaking the political and economic impasse in SA. Relly was a quintessential corporate statesperson who left a powerful legacy.

Indra Nooyi, former chair and CEO of PepsiCo, has described corporate statespersonship as “one of those phrases that says so much in just two words. It captures an invaluable ambition, that business people can and should aspire to something nobler, something greater, than their bottom line.”

In the US, leaders such as Nooyi, Steve Schwarzman, Jeffrey Immelt, Alan Mulally, David Cote and Bill Gates have intervened in public affairs to promote collective action in support of the common good. Blackstone cofounder Schwarzman, who captured his own corporate journey in his compelling memoir What it Takes, demonstrates how business leaders can tap into their resources, networks and know-how to solve societal challenges. Corporate statespeople are forward-looking and connect their personal ambitions to the wellbeing of their societies and the vitality of humanity.

SA has few such leaders today, but the donation of R2bn by Johann Rupert and Nicky Oppenheimer to help small businesses and their workers cope with the economic fallout from the coronavirus shows what is possible when business leaders work together with the government to solve social and economic challenges. This is an act that should inspire other business leaders to realise a greater social purpose for their wealth.

Various SA companies have announced measures intended to boost capacities for public health intervention, support small and medium enterprises, keep the supply chains well oiled, and support the establishment of a Solidarity Fund to alleviate suffering and distress. These are laudable steps, but more is needed to match the scale of the challenge, especially the sort of efforts that have been evinced by the Rupert and Oppenheimer families. Enlightened BEE moguls who have benefited from economic opportunities brought about by the postapartheid dispensation also need to rise to the challenge posed by this unprecedented public health crisis.  

In the wake of the coronavirus there has emerged public-spirited leadership in other countries, with wealthy individuals such as Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Tencent’s Pony Ma contributing their resources to relieve pain and social dislocation in China. Jack Ma also donated medical equipment and supplies to a number of African countries.

Other companies such as Baidu, Bank of China, China Construction Bank, Sinopec, Fosun Group, Foxconn and Xiaomi have been on the front lines in stemming the social and economic strain of the coronavirus in China. They have played a leading role in supporting the provision of health care and food, the manufacture of masks and ramping up supply chains for fast delivery of essential medical supplies, without seeking to make a profit. China was able to build two new hospitals in 10 days because of the co-operation between the government and companies. Huawei deployed its 5G infrastructure to enable medical staff to monitor patients online.

Recently, Silicon Valley executives came together to devise ways to use their money and networks to address the social, economic and health impacts of the spread of the coronavirus. This group of business leaders includes the CEOs of Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Netflix, Google and Salesforce.

The measures announced by the private sector to ameliorate the effects of the coronavirus are commendable. However, business should go beyond minimalist efforts, be bolder and increase the quantum of support. Wealthy individuals, including BEE tycoons, must stand up and be counted in this hour of national need. The key challenge facing business leaders today is the necessity to use their influence and power as a force for the common good.

There is much to be learnt from the largesse extended by the Oppenheimer and Rupert families. Business leaders, black and white, can use this crisis as an opportunity to build the country on a more sound socioeconomic basis.

• Soko is professor of international business and strategy at the Wits Business School, and Qobo is head (designate) of the Wits School of Governance.