When Mahatma Gandhi came to South Africa in the late 19th century as a newly qualified lawyer, he arrived here in Durban. Just behind Durban’s City Hall is the old courthouse where he often visited to defend his clients and where he first encountered the burning injustice that would spur him to become the leader and statesman of his generation.
And whilst much has changed for the better since those times and the dark days of apartheid, too much has stayed the same. Too many South Africans are still living low quality lives and denied the most basic opportunities. Too many are without a job and too often the dream of an equal South Africa has been betrayed.
Unemployment at 27%. Nearly 200,000 fewer young people in work now than in 2008. And more than 90% of the country’s wealth in the hands of just 10%. This situation is a moral stain on our country and if current trends continue, the country faces a bleak future. We are in danger of leaving a bitter legacy to our children and grandchildren.
As leaders of the business community in South Africa we have decided to say ‘enough’. For too long we have remained on the side-lines on the issues facing the country. We have decided to stand up and speak out to say loudly, Business Believes in South Africa. We believe in South Africa’s future, we share the values set out in its constitution and want to see equality and prosperity for all.
Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Business must and will be the change we wish to see in South Africa to secure the transformation so desperately needed.
Of course, business is not blameless and if we fall short of the high standards expected of us, we should be called out and judged on our response. At Business Leadership South Africa we welcome the findings of KPMG’s recent investigation and their willingness to act decisively on them. It’s important that when business is accused of wrongdoing it does the right thing.
But while business is ready to accept its share of responsibility, most of the blame for this tragic situation must be laid at the door of government and its poor leadership. In too many sectors of the economy and public life, policies have either been poorly conceived or poorly executed. Government contracts and jobs go to the connected rather than the deserving. We have also been discovering to our horror, the impact of widespread corruption and state capture.
Over the past year, business leaders in South Africa have been smeared by a cynical and ugly campaign. Under the banner “White Monopoly Capital” we were accused of causing the poverty, inequality and unemployment that scar this country. The campaign set black against white, putting progress on race relations back years, and was a brazen attempt to deflect attention from industrial scale corruption in Government and state capture.
Now business is fighting back against the lies of that campaign – and making clear why we are a force for good.
Last month, I and other members of the Business Leadership South Africa council launched our positive campaign for South Africa, “BusinessBelieves”, and pledged our commitment to delivering a better society for our children. Last week I met with leaders of the Durban business community to remake this commitment and I will now travel to every corner of South Africa to do the same.
Our commitment includes a Contract with South Africa. It sums up our values and how we hope to deliver inclusive economic growth. We pledge to create jobs, by growing the economy. We will encourage and empower senior black leadership. We will invest in South Africans and the communities they live in and support small businesses that are the entrepreneurial heart the economy. Most importantly, we will condemn and root out corruption, which must be crushed and punished where we find it in the public or private sector.
This is the business community’s pledge to South Africa. It is not a plan or a programme, but a clear statement of intent which our members will live by. We will prize action over words. But it is not a journey we can make alone.
We will be able to fulfil this contract better if the Government commits to create the conditions necessary for the economy to grow. It needs to show genuine commitment to the welfare of the many, not the enrichment of the few. Labour too must play it part and show the flexibility necessary to make progress.
When Gandhi first arrived in Durban he was meant to only stay one year. But on the day he was meant to leave for India, the people pleaded for him to stay and fight for the cause to which he dedicated his life. Gandhi did not turn his back on them and he ended up staying in South Africa for 20 years.
Today we are fighting a new cause in South Africa and we must not turn our backs. It may be a struggle. And there will be setbacks along the way. But we will guided by those leaders who have come before us who fought to change South Africa for the better.
View The Mercury article here.
Published in The Mercury (26 September 2017)