Naive thoughts on economic transformation in SA

I found Peter Bruce’s recent editorial about the EFF/JSE demands to be incredibly thought-provoking. The words: “Malema”, “JSE”, “demands”, “51% ownership” and “march” in one phrase, provoke a deep sense of cynicism for many and fear, for others.

Bruce’s piece helped me get a better understanding of the EFF demands and, indeed, Malema’s goals. I found myself thinking, rather counterintuitively, that opportunity knocks. It’s probably naive idealism but I wonder if the business leaders of SA may see it the same way:

It is obvious to anyone who has their finger anywhere near the pulse that it is a critical time right now on the question of inequality/transformation and white privilege. The government is doing nothing about it. Seemingly, big biz does not know what to do about it and appears to lack constructive outlets/incentives beyond the ineffectual policies of AA & BEE to affect the status quo.

Malema, to me at least, seems to be stepping into this supermassive black hole of leadership and it might prove helpful to suspend our disbelief that the JSE demands are another act of political rabble rousing and disruption. Indeed, it may prove naive to have done so but by giving Mr Malema the benefit of the doubt, one can see a rare opportunity for nation-building and for real progress to be made on the seemingly intractable issue of economic transformation.

Many will be blind to this opportunity because of the tragicomedy that they watch play out in parliament each week. Indeed, to see this opportunity, one has to be prepared to view Malema as a legitimate and well-intentioned representative of the poor, unemployed and angry rather than a corrupt and dangerous megalomaniac. The takeaway from those EFF demands is that they are proposing that business does more for education, workers, domestic industry, etc. What I didn’t see was “we (the EFF or we soon-to-be EFF govt) demand 51% of your company” or that “I, Julius Malema want my family trusts to get all the contracts”.

Similarly, the cynic would expect big business to keep their noses in their P&L’s, treat Malema as a bad actor and leave the ANC govt to deal with repelling those EFF demands. We all know the outcome of that approach: violence, disruption, economic shocks, further strained racial ties and, at best, a few months postponement of the economic “come to Jesus” meeting before a bigger set of mass action and accompanying violence.

The rare opportunity is that the nettle could be grasped: Malema’s demands could be received in good faith and could catalyse the kind of economic CODESA that is needed to take the SA reconciliation project into its next phase. The Dramatis Personae in this version of CODESA features Malema, ironically enough, in the role of Cyril Ramaphosa. Roelf Meyer’s character is still to be cast but in the 2015 remake, he/she should be a star black actor.

This scenario calls for bold business leaders who have enough foresight to know that the walls of their homes can only be built so high; and enough of a memory to recall the gutsy moves and good faith that was required from the key figures who instigated the negotiations that ended apartheid. Like 1990, the country in 2015 is facing enormous challenges and running out of time.

Bold, proactive leadership is needed to move to the next phase — outsourcing leadership entirely to a distracted and disorganised government is looking fatal. Regarding the negotiations. There may be some extremist or unfeasible demands amongst the EFF’s asks but that there are also some very good ones (especially around education) and a bunch of laudable themes, like supporting the domestic economy, closing fiscal loopholes, etc. Business should be frantically pulling together their best thinkers & leaders together right now, in order to: 1. Prepare a roadmap for negotiations 2. Constructively assess the EFF demands: accept the sensible proposals, build on the positive themes and counter the unrealistic asks with better ideas.

This has to happen at some stage and in my view, Malema is doing the country a favour by accelerating the end game because every day this drifts, anger grows, resentment grows, racial intolerance grows etc. And just to be clear, this is not about Malema and the EFF — just as CODESA wasn’t about Ramaphosa and the ANC. Let sanity prevail: instead of meeting the EFF with private security battalions and the state security apparatus, be proactive and facilitate real change — enough counting shekels while the country goes down the tubes. My hope is that the smart business leaders aren’t blind to the growing racial tensions/animosity/impatience/disillusionment and realise that a ‘new deal’ cannot be postponed any longer. Here’s hoping…