President Cyril Ramaphosa and President of Business Unity SA Sipho Pityana. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa and President of Business Unity SA Sipho Pityana. Picture: GCIS

If I were to be asked the question: "Is business doing enough to build a better SA?" my short answer would be another question: "Can we ever do enough?"

We cannot ignore the realities post-1994: our economy has grown, yet millions of unemployed people — particularly young people — have not seen any benefit from that growth.

Our economy has transformed — but the majority of black executives and investors remain marginalised.

We can boast that our financial services are ranked among the best in the world when it comes to governance and efficacy. But how many small businesses — the engines of inclusive growth — have access to capital?

We can also feel proud that we were ranked among the top 35 agriculture exporters in the world in 2018 — but how many black farmers contributed to that ranking?

I’m encouraged by the opportunities that the fourth industrial revolution offers — yet I am concerned that we are not strategically positioned to sit at the top table so we can maximise its benefits.

A lack of educational competence and skills to leverage these opportunities is especially worrying.

Post-apartheid, we quickly earned a reputation for being committed to good governance, with the world-class King codes and the ranking of our audit profession in the top three in the world as recently as 2016.

We have been a recruitment ground for high-end technical skills, including in mining and other disciplines.

But very few will remember this because of the blemishes that came with corporate scandals. Who forgets the rogues’ gallery that includes Steinhoff, KPMG, McKinsey, Bain and SAP?

The challenge facing business today in building a better SA, therefore, is to overcome our history and our damaging legacy, be it colonialism, apartheid, or state capture.

Business is working hard — extremely hard — in all these areas.

Within Business Unity SA (Busa), for example, we are shaping policy proposals that are designed to restructure the economy so that it is representative of the national demographic, with the development of a sustainable and inclusive economy top of mind.

We are particularly focused on our partnership with government to improve its ability to provide for the needs of the people.

And, we hope, to hold government to account on its promises and commitments.

Busa backs ethical conduct in business, and we support initiatives to bring to book those who have been involved in corporate crime.

The problem is that we still have to stare down a lack of clear macroeconomic policy; a government leadership that too often lacks the urgency required to deal with the current economic crisis; and a series of crippling stalemates with labour and government over how to address the damage that debt-laden state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are causing to the economy.

But we do what we can: forcing change, where possible, in government’s approach to the restructuring of SOEs; partnering with government and labour to protect existing jobs while at the same time promoting job creation; supporting initiatives to make it easier to do business in SA; backing investment drives to attract foreign investment; shaping approaches to skills development; and — slowly but surely — responding to the near-apocalyptic consequences of climate change.

Ultimately, though, the biggest difficulty will be to overcome the trust deficit that exists with the rest of society — to convince SA, and the world, that we are building the country, not sucking it dry.

The successive waves of business collaboration in the theft of resources, land, public money and customers’ money have created an almost irreparable scar on the SA psyche.

They have — often correctly — undermined confidence in perceptions of business, and our actions have too often reinforced the negative perceptions rather than changing them.

To repair the trust deficit, we will have to lead by example: cut back on the frills; acknowledge that executive remuneration in some areas is beyond excessive; and do whatever we can to cut costs and not jobs.

We will have to walk the talk when we say we are no longer just about shareholder value — we care about societal value even more. The era of balancing profit and purpose is upon us.

Pityana is president of Business Unity SA