To paraphrase John F Kennedy, business should speak out on political issues not because it is easy, but precisely because it is difficult.
It’s a subject that has been much debated in recent weeks in the wake of Futuregrowth’s public stance on the chaos at state-owned companies.
If there were ever a time to break the code of silence, it is now: inappropriate and contradictory policies, corruption and neglect are wreaking economic havoc. Political infighting has only made the environment more toxic.
Yet SA executives have an unhappy history, particularly during the apartheid era, of shying away from openly criticising the government of the day.
Their stance isn’t without justification: they fear being punished — by being excluded from state contracts, for example.
But their argument for quiet diplomacy rests on the premise that it’s not in the interests of their shareholders to be in open warfare with the state.
Well, it should be abundantly clear that it is now at the stage where it is not in the interests of shareholders notto speak out. This is about taking pre-emptive action to preserve your business’s ability to survive and thrive.
Perhaps it is time that we give up looking to Business Leadership SA to take the lead. The group is, by nature, a lobbyist and consensus-seeker. But we can expect more from individual captains of industry, who don’t have the excuse that they must build consensus.
Already, some have broken ranks. The admirable Sipho Pityana, chairman of AngloGold Ashanti, has protested vocally, imploring President Jacob Zuma to step down. Other executives who have made sharp comments include Investec’s Stephen Koseff, Remgro’s Johann Rupert, and Sibanye’s Neal Froneman.
But where are the others? They applaud when former finance minister Trevor Manuel rebukes government, but their own silence is embarrassing. Our executives and chairmen need to accept they have a role in shaping society.