Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Government indifference to business elite puts us in peril

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10 Dec 2014 | Tony Leon | Business Day

While Jooste and Bekker are fairly quiet about their political opinions, Rupert and Wiese are less so, writes Tony Leon

IN 1936, in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, American Nobel literary laureate Ernest Hemingway mocked F Scott Fitzgerald’s apparent obsession with the super-rich. Fitzgerald had mused: "The very rich … are very different from you and me." Hemingway’s withering literary retort was: "Yes, they have more money."

Nearly 80 years later, over the past weekend, the Sunday Times published its own list of SA’s wealthiest billionaires. No doubt the names on it inspire similar sentiments among readers — from admiration to envy or, in the case of the revenue service facing diminishing returns, an itch to extract even more of their income for the needy fiscus.

I couldn’t help but muse that nearly 40 years ago, during military conscription, I shared a billet in Pretoria with the top name on the list, Ivan Glasenberg. But, alas, none of his later revealed business acumen rubbed off on his fellow conscripts.

The paucity of women and infrequency of black names on the list inspired a lot of necessary comment. But I rather thought that the response of one reader captured the essence of the issue: "What SA really needs is more billionaires", of whatever stripe.

The listing is inexact, but it does provide a snapshot of many of the local super rich and the companies they have built or in which they have huge holdings.

My second musing was about the town of Stellenbosch and its university. Doubtless there is a thesis waiting to be written about what it is about the waters there which incubated so many of the post-1994 business leadership success stories of this country. It was hardly written in the stars, that a quartet of Afrikaans-speaking men — Johann Rupert, Christo Wiese, Koos Bekker and Markus Jooste — would achieve such global, never mind South African, prominence within two decades. And each of them has some provenance with this small town.

Of course generalisations of this sort are also inexact. Other business achievers of recent note such as Stephen Saad, Patrice Motsepe and Adrian Gore, got their business smarts elsewhere. And of course, simply the fact that this foursome are Afrikaans-speaking residents of the Western Cape can be as misleading as bracketing together Jacob Zuma and Lindiwe Mazibuko on the basis that both are isiZulu-speaking.

But while Jooste and Bekker are fairly quiet about their political opinions, Rupert and Wiese are less so. In an interview in Rapport Wiese made a revealing disclosure. Recounting a conversation with Motsepe who expressed his dismay at the absence of most of "the rich list" at this year’s presidential inauguration, Wiese countered with the unanswerable: "Well, I wasn’t invited."

Since the past weekend also marked the first anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela, Wiese’s omission from the current president’s guest list was striking given the enormous attention which Mandela lavished on the then business elite of SA, from invitations to everything, to constant rounds of telephone diplomacy with its leading members.

Perhaps 20 years later the government no longer feels the needs for such interaction, or does not enjoy the "noises off" comment some might offer.

Perhaps the wise dictum of former US secretary of state Colin Powell that "no leader’s office should be an echo chamber" where the only conversation amounts to a chorus of approval, has been discarded.

Rupert underlined this point, and made a lot of the recent political weather. At the annual meeting of his Remgro Group, he opined: "The leadership of the country, quite frankly, is becoming very hard to defend abroad. The biggest insult is that they don’t seem to care what we think." And in a bow to populism he added that this dialogue of the deaf was not just confined to business but extended to "people in the townships".

The headline-treatment for Rupert was not that his comment was extraordinary; it was the rarity of such public expression by a certifiable leader of the corporate elite.

It is a matter of record rather than conjecture that on reading such a comment, Mandela would have been on the phone to Rupert within a hour or two. Different times then and now.

Perhaps the lack of response from the governing elite to the challenge of leading members of the business elite is at one level to be welcomed. It is a matter of more recent record just how easily stung our rulers and masters are when criticised. Far less harsh criticism than Rupert’s jeremiad led to a stream of invective from African National Congress secretary-general Gwede Mantashe in January last year.

The rather anodyne First National Bank advertising campaign "You Can Help" was pulled when the voluble Mantashe described the bank and various mining companies as, variously, "unpatriotic", "self-hating" and "treating the country like visitors". More darkly, business as a whole was accused of bidding to "control the state". Given the current electricity blackouts and a host of other ailments affecting the delivery of basic services, many might only wish that the latter was the case.

If, in fact, either Wiese or Rupert controlled Eskom, past form suggests they would hardly have lavished bonuses and salaries of R60m on its top executives for this year’s performance. They would have been shown the door.

But the absence of official comment on the Rupert speech did not prevent the "troll brigade" from commenting. One particularly bone-headed response in the comment section of BDlive was instructive, and perhaps widely held. Khayazonke opined: "The man’s amnesia is amazing, perhaps he has forgotten that his empire was built by the evil apartheid corruption." Indeed Rupert is the scion of one of the most prominent families of the past era. But famously his father began his empire in the back of a garage with £10.

They were doubtless assisted by proximity to the past regime, but the Ruperts were hardly its praise singers. Indeed, on the death of Anton Rupert back in 2006, then president Thabo Mbeki, also famously over-sensitive to any criticism from big business, struck an unusual pose in his encomium for Rupert the elder. He eulogised him as being "inspired by the spirit of righteousness and justice". He also noted approvingly that during the darkest night of apartheid, in 1985, Rupert had warned: "Do not embalm the corpse of apartheid, bury it."

In Wiese’s case, the facts also point to an early opposition-mindedness, long before it became fashionable. In 1977 he stood (and duly lost) as a candidate for the anti-apartheid Progressive Federal Party.

Anyway, the more recent corporate success stories of Rupert and Wiese have had a global dimension in the far tougher stream of international waters than the smaller, more protected shoals of the local economy.

Neither these nor other "inconvenient truths" will prevent the crude stereotyping and stigma-labelling which so characterises and debases the current discourse. But a little basic research might help it along.

There are many reasons why the mighty engine of the US economy has roared back to life, the recent extent of which has surprised even the closest market watchers.

But one of a host of differentiating facts between Americans and South Africans other than the striking similarity that we both live in countries with dysfunctional politics, is noteworthy.

It is the splendid disregard which American business has for political leaders it dislikes or whom they think harm their corporate, or even their cultural, interests.

• Follow Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA



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