Governments and business everywhere live in a state of tension. Neither behaves exactly as the other would wish. They have different agendas and different ways of meeting their goals. They need each other, but mostly don’t like each other.
In some countries, they do work reasonably well together. Some governments do try hard to create a business-friendly environment. But more often, the relationship is an uneasy one.
When a prominent business leader speaks out against his government—and more so in a country like South Africa, still struggling to escape its past, and where politicians are prickly and many are socialist or harbor deep anti-business feelings—he needs to think carefully about what will follow. The outcome is unlikely to be what he wishes for. The response from those he’s criticized will be defensive and angry. His peers in business will duck for cover. His own business may be negatively affected.
This is exactly what we now see unfolding in the drama between Reuel Khoza, non-executive chairman of Nedbank, and the ANC-led government of South Africa.
Khoza lit the match with this comment in his chairman’s statement in Nedbank’s latest (2011) annual report:
“UPHOLDING OUR CONSTITUTION
“SA is widely recognised for its liberal and enlightened constitution, yet we observe the emergence of a strange breed of leaders who are determined to undermine the rule of law and override the constitution. Our political leadership’s moral quotient is degenerating and we are fast losing the checks and balances that are necessary to prevent a recurrence of the past. This is not the accountable democracy for which generations suffered and fought.
“The integrity, health, socioeconomic soundness and prosperity of SA is the collective responsibility of all citizens, corporate or individual. We have a duty to build and develop this nation and to call to book the putative leaders who, due to sheer incapacity to deal with the complexity of 21st century governance and leadership, cannot lead.
“We have a duty to insist on strict adherence to the institutional forms that underpin our young democracy.”
The ANC/government immediately struck back at Khoza. The attacks—labelled in the media as “boorish,” “hypersentive,” “paranoid,” “personal,” “inappropriate,” and “illogical”—ensured that the matter got wide publicity, and may have done more damage to SA than anything he’d said. Various commentators called for open and polite discussion of the issues he’d raised. Khoza visited the ANC’s headquarters to discuss the matter, and the movement issued a statement afterward, saying:
“We are happy that this interaction took part in a cordial atmosphere and was fruitful.
“The meeting resolved what was perceived as a stand-off and addressed a variety of issues related to governance and business leadership.
“We are encouraged that a variety of options in terms of engagement were considered. The meeting resolved that there will be more meaningful interaction between the two parties in future.”
OK. And what now? What might “more meaningful interaction” mean? Is all forgiven? Has Khoza’s message been given short shrift or taken to heart?
Will there be further chats…or actual changes of leadership…more careful recruitment of future leaders…leadership development programs…? Is Khoza now going to back down and pretend he didn’t really mean what he said? Or will he repeat it the next time some journalist asks him if he was serious? How will he deal with questions about this matter that will surely be lobbed at him when next he speaks at a conference?
While all this was happening, Garth Griffin, outgoing chairman of Absa, wrote in his own bank’s annual report that SA needed less talk, more action. Then Nicky Newton-King, CEO of the Johannesburg Securities exchange (JSE), told the Cape Town Press Club that investors wanted certainty from markets, but Khoza’s views reflected uncertainty about the direction of South Africa’s policies.
Some people saw these as signs that “business” was starting to speak out, and hoped for more. But that’s not been the case.
While there were murmurs from the corporate sector about government being wrong to expect business to stick to business and stay out of politics, hardly anyone said Khoza was right. That was left to “outsiders” like Institute of Race Relations CEO John Kane-Berman, the indomitable Business Day letter writer, Dr Lucas Ntyintyane, and the CEO of the SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Massmart CEO Grant Pattison saw Khoza’s comment as having hit a nerve because it was “too close to the truth.” But when the Sunday Times sought comment from other captains of industry, most became unavailable or refused to speak.
Corporate SA has once again been cowed.
SO WHAT EXACTLY HAS BEEN ACHIEVED?
Reuel Khoza was brave to do what he did. He stuck his head above the parapet to say what many other people think. Nick Binedell, dean of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) said he was “a bit provocative” but “should be commended for getting the debate out in the open.”
The political climate in SA has soured badly in recent years. The national conversation has become toxic, uncivil and destructive—and will get more so in the months ahead of the ANC’s December policy conference at Mangaung, as power struggles intensify. Politicians and bureaucrats worldwide get slammed for their behavior, but ours are drawing more and more negative attention.
Relations between government and business have never been good since the 1994 transition, and are marked by mutual suspicion and distrust. While government struggles to deliver on its mandate, and desperately needs business investment and assistance, too many of its policies, actions, and words add up to a different message and have the opposite effect.
One objective of the Nedbank Group strategy is, “Becoming the public sector bank of choice.” But the threat has been made that the ANC might need to review its dealings with the bank, and with ANC cadres so firmly entrenched across the public sector, this doesn’t even need to become a formal position to have some impact.
Nedbank also aims to become the leader in business banking, and its retail unit has been performing well. But again, in both of these areas, ANC supporters may be turned off by Khoza’s criticism.
Although he opened his chairman’s statement by emphasizing the importance of sound corporate governance, Khoza then waded into risky territory—in the name of his company. Strange, given that one of Nedbank’s “Deep green aspirations” is to be “worldclass at managing risk.” And that in the risk management review in the annual report, it states:
“Nedbank Group has a strong risk culture and follows worldclass enterprisewide risk management, which aligns strategy, policies, people, processes, technology and business intelligence in order to evaluate, manage and optimise the opportunities, threats and uncertainties the group may face in its ongoing efforts to maximise sustainable shareholder value.”
So what risks has Khoza exposed the bank to? Did Old Mutual, Nedbank’s parent, know this was coming—and what was their view about it? Did Nedbank’s board have advance warning—and what inputs did the members make? Who else in the bank saw the statement before it was published?
QUESTIONS FOR THE FUTURE
Past experience has shown the ANC/government to be extremely sensitive to business statements it doesn’t like. So if one thing was guaranteed in this case, it was that the response to Khoza’s opinion would not be calm, respectful, or kind. He pulled no punches, and the fact that he had been close to the Mbeki administration was probably an added irritant.
However, some of the country’s political leaders may think carefully about what he said, and may even try to change their ways and try to get people around them to change, too.
South Africa badly needs all hands on deck, and government and business to work together to create the much vaunted “better life for all.” Now, that is either much more or much less likely. Much depends on whether government is able to tone down its anti-business signals, convince business that it really does value it, and do whatever is needed to make SA a good place to do business. Without that context, business will always be reluctant to invest, create jobs, or contribute in all the other ways that it can.
So here we have an interesting case study for business leaders—and for business schools. With some difficult questions:
- What should characterize the relationship between government and business?
- How freely and openly should business speak about national affairs?
- Should business leaders speak out personally, and under the banner of their firms, or should they leave comment to the organizations that represent them (chambers of commerce, Business Unity South Africa, the Black Business Council, the Black Management Forum, etc.)?
- Should they engage publicly with government about contentious matters, or should they do it behind closed doors?
- How should companies evaluate the risks of making statements critical of government?
- How should they manage the flak that flies when things go badly?
We live in testing, touchy times. Creating a “burning platform” might be the only way to get some things done, but it can also take you down. This saga could have a happy ending. It would be a pity if it ended in tears.