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We are not all in this together, yet

Tony van Niekerk, editor COVER Magazine

As a long term entrepreneur and business executive in various roles, I felt compelled to comment on the current situation in the country. 

Now I would hazard a guess that everyone reading this will think of the looting, not the other major events such as the battered economy, spiraling unemployment, the uncertainty around COVID-19 or the Zondo Commission and it’s tackling of corruption.

There, for me, lies the biggest challenge we face in this country. We have been given, with great sacrifice by many, another cause to bring us together as the COVID-19 cause, the last one to force us to “be in it together” starts to fade. Once again we are seeing how we all have and will come together to “fix the country” and our ruling party will walk tall as the champion, calling on us to pull together and support their quest to get the country up and running. They  are pretty good at making us feel guilty if we do not support the latest cause which they are championing, but they will continue avoiding the elephant in the room: A lack of competence in leadership given in Government by the ANC, our ruling party, which brought us to where we are in all the above challenges.

Just like politicians all over the world, our ruling party, and I don’t use the term Government because the ruling party is the government, are masters at deflecting their failures in a variety of ways. In fact, they pat themselves on the back and just allocated R18b to give themselves an increase after publicly promising not to. We cannot afford to lose sight of the real cause behind our overall current situation; A situation that puts us at the brink of disaster.

We will not progress and we will not solve any of the problems currently facing us, if we do not fix the leadership problem in Government. The only way this will happen is if the ruling party of the country replaces the incompetent leadership structures they have created. 

Herein lies the rub. The first major failure of our Government, the great HIV denial, which is said to have led to 200 000 plus deaths and, up until today, was the biggest cause of growth in orphan numbers and single parent households (66.2% of SA children has no parents (19,1%) or only one (46,4%) . In 2013 62% of these numbers were directly linked to deaths related to HIV . Despite this disaster, we had 200 000 new HIV infection and 72 000 virus related deaths in 2019 ( We have the biggest HIV epidemic in the world, yet their “cause” for us to act against, has been all but pushed to the background while they  measure their victories here in numbers of people receiving ARV medication (7,5m) and the number of condoms they distribute. (In my book this illustrates their failure)

Government action/inaction is a leading cause of our 43,6% expanded unemployment rate (31,5% in 1994) and 74% youth unemployment rate (Stats SA). The list of actions/inactions is far too long to list here) The victories they celebrate: 18 million people are receiving social grants. Ironically again, this number actually indicates their failure to lift people out of poverty.

Every single year for the past 15 years or more, the Auditor General shows us, clearly and factually, that cadre run municipalities have and continue to fail. Just 27 of 257 municipalities received a clean bill of audit in 2021.  Vivid proof of this is in areas like failing firefighting ability, failing water infrastructure, unpaid electricity bills, etc. Almost every single SOE has failed and needed or will very soon need a bailout. SAA has been in business rescue for almost two years, even with another massive bailout, with no take off in sight. Reputable leaders like Mike Barnes, who almost cleaned up the Post Office, was pushed out because he got too close to breaking up the cadre influence. The list of devastation goes on.

There is nothing on the horizon that indicates current Government leaderships’ ability to change course. That has been cemented by the handling of the latest disaster they created, uncontrolled looting. Firstly, they offer no apology for a disaster they caused, secondly, they offer no apologies for their clear failure in detecting, preventing or even simply controlling the chaos and lastly, they hold no current leader accountable for these failures.

The intention of my comments is to keep on the table the fact that we should not view the current cause as a single, unrelated event, (as our president suggested) but just the latest in an ongoing series precipitated by failures of leadership. A leadership totally unable of self -correcting at its core.

We have two responsibilities here. Firstly, we need to encourage everyone to get involved, do what is right and support positive initiatives by Civil Society, Media, The Legislator, The Judiciary and Business to move us forward. As our President said in his latest two speeches and his Mandela Day lecture, it was civil society that saved us from the looting disaster. He praised us for coming together to:

  1. defend the malls and suburbs, 
  2. prevent further destruction and then
  3. for pitching up in large numbers to clean up. 

This is a true characteristic of our resilient civil society, in stark contrast to Government’s absence and inability to mobalise for any of the above three tasks. (In a very recent poll by Times Live, 56,95% of respondents indicated that we should celebrate ourselves in how we managed the threat, 41,2% said they could not even tell we had security forces on the ground and only 1,85% thought Government did a good job). In a sense, our President was hiding their failure in our success.

The second part of our responsibility is where we need to hold Government to account for their failures and not celebrate their victories without seeing them in context of their failures. (social grant numbers against unemployment figures etc,) Civil society has, for years, very visibly, illustrated their dissatisfaction through service delivery riots. In my opinion, it is time now for business leaders to step up to the plate.

Business leaders hold office with a duty to deliver to all stakeholders, shareholders, employees and clients. However, this goes much further when taking ESG (environmental, social and governance) into account. Looking at the industry I operate in, AM Best believes that the insurance industry plays an important role in supporting sustainable economic and social development. ESG factors were the primary driver in 13% of ratings actions in the year to the end of March, according toAM Best

This places the ball squarely in the court of business leaders. If a business leader orders equipment from a supplier and pays but receives no delivery, she will clearly have a duty to demand performance to prevent a loss. If a business relies on a constant supply of fresh water to sustain production and the leaders do not challenge any threat to that supply, they will be held to account for failing their fiduciary responsibility to stakeholders. CLOVER recently announced the relocation of a cheese factory, at a cost of R1,5b, due to the inability of a municipality to deliver services. That was R1,5b of stakeholder funds, cost 330 direct jobs, cripple upstream milk suppliers and have a devastating ripple effect in a small community. If ESG factors are considered, that was a major failure. Now consider the effect of the looting in that context.

In South Africa, the above mentioned, and numerous other failures by Government, present a clear threat to sustainability of business, demanding clear and concise action to force it to deliver on its mandate. As business leaders, we cannot stand by while Government refuses to self-correct, producing failure after failure due to actions aimed at delivering on their own self-serving agendas.

Government already received help from civil society with their latest failure, as mentioned above. Yesterday President Ramaphosa again called business together to ask for our help. There needs to be accountability this time. 

It is now up to business leadership to force Government to deliver. We cannot just nod our heads, knowing we will get less than nothing in return. We owe that to our stakeholders, just as Government owes good leadership to South Africa’s citizens.

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