THE BLOG

Ferial Haffajee: Can Business See Beyond Profit -- Will The Contract That Big Business Signed Itself To Yesterday Deliver?

Corporate South Africa’s commitment to empowerment by race and gender has been tepid.

24/08/2017 03:59 SAST | Updated 24/08/2017 18:16 SAST
netwerk24.com

Business took a leap into the 21st century on Wednesday when it signed a contract with South Africa to make it serve more than just the ends of profit. Business Leadership SA [BLSA], an organisation of the country's biggest and richest corporations, has pledged to align itself to goals like employment, to reduce poverty and to ensure that more black people take centre-stage.

This is a fundamental shift in how the private sector has understood its role in South Africa: until now, the sector has been one of profit before all else.

Can it fulfill the contract? Already, the BLSA has changed its culture and leadership with a set of new sheriffs.

As CEO, Bonang Mohale is a fresh voice for the business sector and an uncompromising spirit at BLSA and this month he was joined by Themba Maseko as the director of communications. Both are outspoken critics of state capture. Maseko is the previous government spokesman who was strong-armed by the Gupta family who wanted him to allocate a bigger slice of government advertising to their media properties.

The two have a tough task ahead of them as the contract can only work if there is a substantial commitment to business taking a longer and wider view of its role in the country and in the world. The contract signed by business leaders in Alexandra yesterday sets up a compact as envisaged by the progressive ideals of the United Nations.

As Mohale noted in his speech yesterday, capital is still associated with people who are white and male.

Implementing the contract in recessionary times is difficult: almost every day, the headlines are filled with news of retrenchments across primary sectors like mining and service sectors like retail. Then, corporate South Africa's commitment to empowerment by race and gender has been tepid.

Every year, the Employment Equity Commission report tracking how many black people and women are making it into the leadership ranks of the private sector reveal a dismal picture. As Mohale noted in his speech yesterday, capital is still associated with people who are white and male.

In the past few months, a few notable black executive appointments have been made, but the Black Management Forum says there is backtracking on the trend of black leadership reaching a critical mass. Take Shoprite: this retail giant yesterday announced another sparkling set of results and revealed that it is now the country's largest private sector employer.

And while Shoprite has made efforts to bring more black South Africans onto its board of directors, there is only a single woman, Dr Anna Mokgokong, on that board where the global movement is to ensure that one in three directors is a woman. Shoprite's biggest customer base is made up of black women.

The competitiveness of South Africa's economy is under constant scrutiny from the Competition Commission.

In the contract, the BLSA has also committed its members to fair business practices and to sign an integrity pact to ensure it is not a party to corrupt practices. South Africans are roiling against the high cost of data and while it is difficult to make cross-country comparisons because of different business conditions, there is a growing view that the mobile companies are price gouging.

In addition, the competitiveness of South Africa's economy is under constant scrutiny from the Competition Commission which suggests that price-fixing and other forms of cartel like behaviour may also be factors holding back growth.

Yesterday's contract signed by big business was a pace-setter for South African corporates. But like the pudding, its proof will be in the eating.