Anglo American CEO Mark Cutifani. Picture: BUSINESS DAY
Anglo American CEO Mark Cutifani. Picture: BUSINESS DAY

It was almost like the old days: Anglo American clears its throat, and the country listens. CEO Mark Cutifani’s statement last week in support of President Cyril Ramaphosa was necessary, timely and calming.

"We still have a very positive long-term view of SA," Cutifani said. "Being a relatively young democracy, there are tough moments from time to time. I think the country will come out of this current moment much stronger."

Anglo is no longer headquartered at 44 Main Street in Joburg, having listed in London in the late 1990s. But in the 1980s, it was the most dominant company in the SA economy, with interests ranging from gold to insurance and beer. It was one of just five companies that together controlled 85% of the shares on the JSE.

Now, Anglo’s past is complicated. It was the first mining company to allow unions, and it did broker discussion with the ANC in exile — but it also benefited handsomely from the cheap black labour of the apartheid era.

But along the way, it realised that its size gave it clout. As Harry Oppenheimer used to say: "Only big companies can do big, difficult things". And this includes engaging politically.

Today, Anglo is a global company, but still a big player in SA. When Cutifani spoke last week, his timing was impeccable. The market was digesting news of huge profits from Anglo’s local interests: Anglo American Platinum, Kumba Iron Ore and De Beers. Anglo reported earnings of R177bn — nearly four times higher than a year before. That will translate into billions of rands in unexpected tax revenues — the social dividend of the commodities boom, and a source of urgently needed economic relief after Covid and the unrest.

Cutifani’s statement also underscored how the large companies such as Anglo will always carry more heft than the representative organisations such as Business Unity SA and Nedlac. The approach of these organisations is necessarily inclusive and conciliatory; they aim to seek common ground and compromise; and they speak the language of diplomacy. SA has a long history of these sorts of business groups, and they played a vital role in softening the visceral resentment of big business to the Afrikaner nationalism of the apartheid era.

But there is a time for speaking softly, just as there is also a time for wielding a big stick. Representative bodies would struggle to have the impact that the CEO of a big firm would have.

While Cutifani can speak in honey-soaked tones in backing Ramaphosa, a company such as Anglo, with its considerable tax cheque, can also sting. And, while Ramaphosa’s reform agenda must be encouraged, his government must also be confronted for its inertia and impotence.

And CEOs have a duty to speak out. Gone are the days, if ever they existed, when they could argue that politics was not their province. On the contrary, they have a duty to shareholders to be politically informed and involved. During the corrupt years of the Jacob Zuma administration, business lost its appetite for the political game — and SA was poorer for it.

The absence of a powerful business voice during those dark years emboldened Zuma’s kleptocrats. Executives mustn’t make that mistake again, particularly as we have a weak state and a strong private sector.

Cutifani is right that SA is at an inflection point.

Ramaphosa needs to finally get a grip on his cabinet — and a reshuffle is expected within days. Economically, he must be bold and insist on investor-friendly policies from his ministers. But executives must not ask for leadership from the president, and fail to deliver it themselves. That, in the end, is why they get the big bucks.

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