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BLSA's CEO Bonang Mohale: Business Believes In South Africa

South Africa’s future and our future as businesses are inseparable.

23/08/2017 14:35 SAST | Updated 23/08/2017 14:35 SAST
Sebnem Coskun/ Anadolu Agency/ Getty Images
Bonang Mohale speaks during a session titled 'Hidrocarbon Frontiers: What is the next game changer?' as part of the 23rd World Energy Congress at Istanbul Congress Center in Istanbul, Turkey on October 11, 2016.

My fellow South Africans –- it is a privilege to speak to you today here in Alexandra.

You may be wondering why the recently appointed Chief Executive of Business Leadership South Africa is here today. The reason is simple. I want to let you know that Business wants to play a full part in making sure this country works for everyone.

The first democratically elected President of this country once lived in this great township. Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela wrote in The Long Walk to Freedom:

Alexandra occupies a treasured place in my heart. It was the first place I lived away from home.

And Madiba holds a special place in the heart of everyone here today. We are rightly in awe of him. What he stood for. And what he achieved. A man who said no to injustice. A man who said, "Not in my name!" "Not in our name!" He sacrificed so much in the cause of freeing South Africans from tyranny. And he challenged every one of us with the question: what are you doing for our country?

Business Believes In South Africa

There is much that I want to say in answer to that question on behalf of Business Leadership South Africa. But if I could ask you to take away just one thought from this speech, it would be this: Business Believes in South Africa.

South Africa's future and our future as businesses are inseparable. We want the transformation so many in this country need so desperately. You may rightly wonder why Business should feel the need to make such an obvious point.

But this is the legacy of the ugly and deceitful "White Monopoly Capital" campaign which sought to blame Business for many of the problems that beset the country. Recent leaks have made clear what a dishonest campaign this was. And how it tried to deflect from the real issue of state capture.

We believe in South Africa's future. We share the values set out in its constitution.

But, though dishonest, this campaign damaged Business's reputation. So it is important that we put this right and show Business for what it is -– a critical national asset. This is what lies at the heart of the campaign... we are fighting back against the falsehoods of White Monopoly Capital and we are asserting Business as a positive force in the life of the country.

Business believes in South Africa. We, the Chief Executives of some of the largest companies in this country, love South Africa –- which is blessed with natural beauty, abundant resources and talented people. We believe in South Africa's future. We share the values set out in its constitution.

And we say humbly: we want to play our part in ensuring the transformation so many in South Africa need so desperately. We are patriots who see our role as creating jobs... growing the economy... investing in communities. So let there be no doubt: Business believes in South Africa.

And it is because we believe in this country because we support the values on which it is founded, that today I have a warning: Something is wrong in South Africa. Something is badly wrong. Don't misunderstand me -- there is no question that much has changed since the dark days of apartheid –- and changed for the better.

The problem is that too much has stayed the same. Too many people are still living low-quality lives -- denied the fair chance that Madiba demanded on their behalf. Too many people are still denied the most basic opportunities.

If current trends continue, the country faces a bleak future. We will have to live with the bitter legacy of leaving our children to face a worse country than we inherited.

Too often the dream of an equal South Africa has been betrayed. Our society continues to be ravaged by unemployment.

By poverty.

By nepotism.

And by corruption.

There are too many South Africans without a job or the opportunities they deserve. If we didn't have serious concerns, I –- and other members of BLSA here today -- would be sitting in our offices, running our businesses, not coming to you with a warning. But this situation is a moral stain on our country and there is no greater challenge to us all -– both as individuals and as business leaders –- than confronting it...

Changing it... And working with others, be they representatives of labour, faith organisations, political parties of any kind -- anyone who shares our values and wants to set this country on the right course.

Because we have been suffering from poor leadership in government. In too many sectors of the economy and public life, policies have either been poorly conceived or poorly executed. We are not educating and empowering our people to join the workforce. We are not creating a policy environment that supports job creation and inclusive growth.

We have also been discovering to our horror, the impact of widespread corruption and state capture. The downgrading of the country's credit rating a few months back was simply confirmation of what we already knew. Many of these challenges were clearly avoidable. For example –- changing the finance minister over a weekend was an own goal. A mistake that could have been avoided.

In short, we are living in dangerous times. If current trends continue, the country faces a bleak future. We will have to live with the bitter legacy of leaving our children to face a worse country than we inherited. Let me be more specific: in many, perhaps most, countries, you expect the government to perform its basic functions competently. These include ensuring an educated population and a functioning criminal justice system.

Corruption and state capture are the cancers eating away at this society.

In South Africa, as we know to our cost, the government is not performing these roles competently. The systematic project of state capture has put South Africa under great stress. In this environment, Business cannot stand idly by. Because none of this is pre-ordained.

It is within all our grasp to ensure that these trends do not continue. That we grip the situation and take the decisions necessary to shape a better future. That is why we are gathered today –- because we, the leaders of business, want to stand up and pledge our commitment to delivering a better society for our children and grandchildren. Business believes we are all sailing in one boat in this country.

In this boat are people of all races and creeds, labour and business and government. There is no acceptable scenario where one of these groups is succeeding but others are failing. And that is why we have to work together. There simply is no alternative. And so we call on all political parties and civil society to work with us to make inclusive economic growth the number one priority.

Because business believes: when the economy is strong, South Africa is strong. If we are to do this BLSA will:

- support policies of Inclusive Growth that will help create jobs and allow the economy and society to transform.

  • Ensure the protection of the Constitution and the key institutions of the state.
  • By doing this we hope to prove Business is a great national asset

But we must acknowledge one simple truth: Corruption and state capture are the cancers eating away at this society. We know business has made mistakes and too often fallen short. We are well aware that business is not blameless. At times we have been too disengaged from the public discussion on these cancers.

We cannot create the conditions for inclusive growth in the face of corruption and state capture.

We have allowed ourselves to be portrayed, as somehow separate from society, and self-interested. This picture is a caricature -– a distortion of reality. What is a society if it is not the people who walk into offices and through factory gates, pack shelves and go down mines, every day? We know Business does not stand apart from society –- it should be society at work and, as such, a critical player in our national life.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that every caricature is founded in fact.

Yes, there are businessmen who are paid too much.

Yes, business leadership in this country is still mainly white and male.

Yes, there are businesses who have engaged in corrupt practices.

Yes, large corporations are seen as not supporting small and black owned businesses.

These are the challenges that we as CEOs must and are prepared to confront.

I stand here today as CEO of Business Leadership South Africa and make a firm commitment that I will work with all members of the BLSA to tackle these issues. But, as we acknowledge our own failings -– we must also highlight the greater problem. Put simply: We cannot create the conditions for inclusive growth in the face of corruption and state capture.

Too often Government contracts and jobs go to the connected rather than the deserving. Everyone who cares about this country must cry, "Not in my name!" wherever they see evidence of corruption, whether in the public or private sector.

It must be rooted out.

It must be crushed.

It must be punished.

South African businesses have created six times as many jobs as the government since 1994. Our aim is to create even more jobs.

What Business Can Do

So what is the purpose of business in such an environment? What can business leaders do to help? I have been clear, if this dream is to be achieved, Business leaders know we must confront our own issues, clean our house where needed and step up. And so we commit to a Contract with South Africa –- which we are announcing today.

We will do all we can to:

  • Create jobs, by growing the economy.

South African businesses have created six times as many jobs as the government since 1994. Our aim is to create even more jobs.

  • Encourage and empower senior black leadership.

Ultimately, the best way to close the opportunity gap is to invest in more businesses owned, run by and employing black South Africans.

We pledge to grow a new generation of black business leaders and entrepreneurs.

  • Invest in South Africans

South Africa can only meet the challenges of the future with a highly-skilled workforce.

We will train South African managers and workers for the challenges ahead.

  • Invest in communities.

Business owes it to South Africans to do more to ensure the communities where it operates thrive and prosper.

  • Support small businesses.

They should be the lifeblood of our economy - but too often they struggle. It is our duty to help them succeed by financing new businesses, training and mentoring entrepreneurs for success.

  • Condemn and root out corruption
We are saying we want to be part of the solution in South Africa. Judge us by what we do.

As I have said –- corruption and state capture are the cancers that are eating away at our society. They must be rooted out, crushed and punished where we find them in the public or private sector.

This is our contract with South Africa. Judge us by it. Hold us accountable. We will be able to fulfil this contract better if the Government also steps up. Business believes Government must also commit to creating the conditions necessary for it to succeed, so the economy can grow. Too many bad decisions have got in the way of that.

Addressing this gap in understanding will be a key mission for BLSA going forward. So our contract is not a programme, but a commitment. A pledge. BLSA is a membership organisation. We do not have the power or the remit to tell our members how to run their businesses. So we can't commit on their behalf to spend X billion Rand or create Y thousand jobs.

But what we can do -- and what we are doing through this Contract -- is telling South Africa that we will do more. And we are committed to doing more. It is often said that the "Tone is set at the top". As our name indicates, BLSA is an organisation that represents many of South Africa's largest businesses, whose leaders sit on our Board and Council and are here today.

Through the Contract, we are making clear that we absolutely understand the responsibility to lead. It is our critical mission. We know you will judge us by our deeds and not our words. And we welcome that. By signing the Contract, we are making a symbolic commitment to our fellow South Africans. We are saying we want to be part of the solution in South Africa. Judge us by what we do.

It will be the responsibility of all our members to convert words into deeds, to return to their offices, recommitted to the task, determined to be making real, tangible progress in all these different areas. And society will be entitled to monitor the progress businesses are making towards meeting these pledges.

Business has today started on a journey to a better South Africa. But it is not a journey we can make alone.

So let me be even more specific. Today we are also launching an Integrity Pledge. We want businesses to be clear that as they call on Government to end corruption -– they are willing to do all they can to crush it where they can.

Our Integrity Pledge states:

  • We will have zero tolerance for corruption in our own midst.
  • We will not act anti-competitively.
  • We will protect whistle blowers.

As I have already made clear, while Business can and must do better, we don't live in a vacuum, we also need to see our commitment matched by Government and Labour. From government, we expect a commitment to crushing corruption and developing an environment that allows Business to invest, grow the economy and create the jobs without which we will not have a future worth sharing.

Labour too must step up and show that it is willing to make the sorts of commitments necessary to create a successful climate for growth and job creation. We have announced today Business's Contract with South Africa and backed it up with an Integrity Pledge. It is a statement of Business's belief in the future of the country, and our commitment to making it happen.

As I said at the outset, we face a serious situation in South Africa. And we are saying today that Business is committed to stepping up its efforts to putting us on the path to a better future. So we pledge, through this Contract, to do things differently. We have not announced a programme, but we have spelt out the areas in which we plan to make a difference, and we have made a statement of intent to do more in these areas.

As we go forward, judge us by what we deliver. And judge us by how we behave. We do not presume to know all the answers. For this reason, it will be a priority of mine to travel around the country to not only lead but also to listen. Our members will be going back to their own businesses and doing the same. And I am sure we will be joined by other businesses beyond BLSA.

Business has today started on a journey to a better South Africa. But it is not a journey we can make alone. I hope every one of you will join us. We are not political and will not interfere in the democratic process. It may be a struggle. And there will be setbacks along the way.

But only by keeping our eyes on this prize will we ensure that the South Africa of Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela's dream –- where everyone prospers -- will become a reality.

Thank you.