Picture: 123RF/HASLOO
Picture: 123RF/HASLOO

Living in SA in the past few years has often felt like one long, rolling commission of inquiry as we sort through the legal aftermath of the Zuma years and attempt to define a way forward for the country.

There is no doubt that we are in a serious crisis in SA, and effective leadership and a clear sense of what is really going on in the country have become scarce commodities. However, there is no shortage of accusations. Ethics have now become — to borrow a US term, “weaponised”. It feels like too many accusations are being thrown around willy-nilly in the service of agendas that are often anything but ethical.

One of the most damaging phenomena we have seen surfacing are the automatic questions many black businesses seem to face. Did they succeed fairly and honestly? Did they play by the rules? This talks to an insidious race-based bias in our national discourse, which has created a crisis of confidence in black businesses and the investors that our country desperately needs to recover from the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Through successive commissions of inquiry we have seen quality black-owned business fall victim to unsubstantiated and damaging claims, devoting energy and resources to defending themselves that would be better used in unlocking economic growth and the transformation of our economy.

The rule of law is such a critical part of our democracy, and as a legal professional I am hugely supportive of commissions of inquiry. Unfortunately, in too many recent incidences these structures have been used to provide a platform for agendas that are not sufficiently interrogated. It is incumbent on commission structures to ensure there is balance in the way all sides are presented.

In the Mpati inquiry into the Public Investment Corporation we saw how spurious and vexatious allegations were tested, but the individual bringing the allegations against Harith General Partners in particular had no evidence to back his claims. As expected, the commission made a finding of “no corruption”. That constituted an abuse of the commission as a public and statutory platform and a waste of scarce public resources.

This abuse of public platforms is again rearing its ugly head, disguised as a crusade against corruption and maladministration at the Development Bank of Southern Africa, an institution charged with spearheading the country’s multibillion-rand infrastructure rollout programme to steer us out of the Covid-19-induced economic malaise.

Lack of trust

The lack of trust in public institutions and the private sector that has grown so acute over the past few years has made it far too easy to sway people with a narrative based on the assumption of corruption by any black business. This trend has to stop, but how?  

I am pleased to say there is a growing groundswell against this negative sentiment. We need to turn our energy away from the endless accusations and ride on the positive momentum that efforts to hold our leaders to account have given us. We need to ask ourselves important questions and become sceptical and discerning in how we appraise accusations. Why are they being made? What is really behind them?

The media are an absolutely critical stakeholder in this regard, reflecting the national zeitgeist, and can act as a vital educator and platform to surface ideas that require debate. But we have seen the immense pressure quality media are under globally. In SA a lack of investment in our most important titles has created real risks to our democracy and our ability to recover from this period of instability. If the media pull the trigger on stories that lack balance or repeat allegations before they have made a critical assessment of their validity, the impact they can have may be devastating.

Building capacity in this vital pillar of society will be key to how our democracy survives and flourishes. We need robust sources we can trust, and that will require investment in training and resources. That also means we will need to pay for quality journalism. We also need the media to sharpen their professional scepticism and help the person in the street to ask — what are the objectives and intentions of this agenda?

We have to change the narrative that all black businesses are corrupt if we are to succeed as a nation and build an economy that is equitable, representative and benefits all. We have to work to remove the racial filter that defines so much of our discourse. South Africans also need to focus on some of the good, the constant wave of negativity and doubt we live with is not conducive to action or the type of outcomes we need.

This has also had a negative effect on SA’s attractiveness as a destination for foreign direct investment. This ultimately harms the poorest of the poor, who lose out as growth and employment stall. South Africans cannot accuse and finger-point their way out of this crisis, taking down ethical businesses in the process. Our efforts to further transform the economy will continue to be undermined if we attack the ethical businesses that are contributing to the establishment of black business as a force to be reckoned with.

Successful and meaningful empowerment of our country and people will only be achieved when every ordinary South African knows black South Africans can, and have been, successful. We all need to ask ourselves whether we have the will to change this situation. If we see ourselves as South Africans first we can rally the good people who can match and overcome those who seek to undermine what we are building, irrespective of race.

• Mukaddam is an advocate.

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