EDITORIAL: Bonang Mohale’s legacy of bravery shows business as a force for good
Mohale made Business Leadership SA a voice against corruption and state capture
It may well be self-evident, but in these times it’s easy to forget that business can, and mostly is, a force for good in society.
It can sometimes be hard to appreciate, with business pages like ours almost every day filled with stories of corporate greed and potential criminality, from Steinhoff to Tongaat Hulett. These are two of the worst examples where actions by those entrusted with shareholders’ money have fallen well short, bringing into question the credibility of SA capitalism as a whole.
Business as a punching bag was taken to new extremes in the Zuma years, especially as the corrupt and captured nature of that administration became harder to hide.
Bonang Mohale’s official departure as CEO of Business Leadership SA (BLSA) this week seems to be an appropriate occasion to remind people of the other side.
Mohale’s time at the helm of BLSA, which represents some of the biggest names in corporate SA, will best be remembered as a period in which business got out out of its shell and showed it can be part of broader struggles to sustain the values on which the country’s democracy is based.
Before the forceful intervention of BLSA in the fight against state capture in the latter years of the disastrous Jacob Zuma presidency, many businesses’ instinct had been to stay out of the political fray because speaking out could come with consequences, not always positive.
And that was not unique to the Zuma presidency either. Those with long memories will remember Sasol drawing the ire of former president Thabo Mbeki back in 2003 for daring to suggest, in its pre-listing submission to the New York Stock Exchange, that black empowerment and the selling of equity stakes may be a business risk.
The company was accused of badmouthing SA and the CEO at the time, Pieter Cox, issued a clarification saying it had been misinterpreted and taken out of context.
When even a statement as innocuous as that, which the company said was made necessary by the legal requirements of its US listing, could cause a political storm, it’s not surprising that firms have largely chosen to keep their own counsel, even more so for those who do business with the state.
Business as a punching bag was taken to new extremes in the Zuma years, especially as the corrupt and captured nature of that administration became harder to hide. Diversion tactics perfected by the now defunct UK-based public relations company Bell Pottinger on behalf of the Gupta family and other vultures keen to feed on state resources included such phrases as “white monopoly capital” and the demonisation of all critics as puppets of that capital and opponents of what was cynically characterised as “radical economic transformation”.
Even today Zuma and his supporters like to throw this term around, though they never stop to ask exactly what Zuma did to further the cause of RET, as they call it. That’s because their agenda isn’t transformation at all, but the undermining and eventual ousting of President Cyril Ramaphosa.
In the environment in the period leading up to the end of Zuma’s ruinous reign, Mohale’s bravery cannot be overstated.
As a black executive leading an organisation representing more than 80 CEOs, most of whom would have been white, it would have been easier for Mohale to stay on the sidelines and avoid the controversy and the name-calling that would eventually come his way. His elevation to a senior position at Bidvest at the end of his BLSA stint will have led to more vitriol from the RET crowd.
Instead of shutting up and staying out of the firing line, he made BLSA a vocal voice against corruption and state capture, kicking out the likes of Eskom, Transnet, KPMG, and Bain & Company from the organisation.
There may have been a degree of grandstanding by Mohale, who doesn’t strike anyone as being the shy type and has his detractors. But that doesn’t change the fact that he took a stand when it would have been easier to look the other way.
Busisiwe Mavuso, who succeeded him, may well have different priorities in line with the changed circumstances, and is likely to be more focused on transformation issues.
She’ll do well to remember that promoting good governance and fighting corruption remain a key objective for the organisation, which should be a unifying voice for business.