Retrospective – Before Democracy and After

In a country as fractured as South Africa, in which persistent inequality and the tentacles of corruption have reached deep into the organs of the state, the hope until recently had always been that business would prevail over the long run, and in so doing uplift the lives of all. The dominant economic thesis has been and to a considerable extent remains, that, after all, the economy will keep chugging along in spite of the erosion of our political frameworks.  

This assumption was the same one that Clem Sunter – formally of Anglo American, and subsequently the country’s favourite political futurist – made in various forums as early as the late eighties, when he spoke of the “high road” and the “low road”. The “low road” was the path that South Africa could potentially take should the National Party at the time choose to not work with the ANC in creating a new constitution and a stable South Africa.

The outcomes to be contemplated in choosing the “low road” were too disturbing to imagine – a total break down in the rule of law, rampant corruption, the inability to collect tax, hyperinflation, and the total failure of governance. The Zimbabwe scenario.

The “high road” was the opposite – a utopian world in which all worked together, partnering with each other, efficiently employing resources, and instituting long-term redevelopment plans in which business shared the burden with government in the noble effort of the reconstruction of society.

Following the initial years of the successes of Mandela – the constitution, international recognition, the Nobel Prize, the World Cup of 1995 and the symbolic actions he made to deracialise this country – things began slowly to unravel from the initial effervescence engendered in the phrase, the “Rainbow Nation”. Sunter by now had taken on a new tone. He acknowledged that neither the “high road” nor the “low road” had eventuated. Certainly, we did not find ourselves in a dystopian fractured world.

For a time, South Africa was the darling of the world, its constitution beheld as the most liberal ever scripted, and the judiciary and fiscal organs of the state regarded as world class. And we were building: there was the Gautrain, the World Cup facilities, and even a degree of economic growth, albeit slower than one would like and in a form that seemed less to favour the poor than to favour the already-rich.

However, it was impossible to continue to ignore the gnawing truths that were beginning to erode this utopia: the Arms Deal, the Shabir Shaiks, fractures within the ANC itself, rampant and terrifying crime, the official position taken on the scourge of HIV by the then Minister of Health. Yet, the country was growing, world-class companies in construction, banking, pharmaceuticals, and insurance were spreading their wings offshore and, of course, there was the commodities boom. For ten years at least, it was virtually impossible to not make money in mining.

Sunter characterised the distortion between these two realities – on the one hand the growth of Sandton, the epicentre of commercial Africa, and its tall glass buildings as a symbol of success, versus the carnage and horror of dire poverty in the Alexandra township less than ten kilometres away – as neither of the outcomes he had predicted. He acknowledged quite simply that, whilst we were not in the throes of civil war, we certainly had not found ourselves on the “high road”.

The reason, he told us, that we had not been over-come with disaster, but at the same time were not necessarily advancing, was that he had underestimated the ability for big business to drag the rest of the country along. Specifically, he had underestimated the incorrigible ability for big business to thrive, despite the burdens of deep societal imbalance, with the albatross of history noosed to its neck. This admission by Sunter was not without its proselytising: big business must get more involved, must help to lessen the burden on the state, and must understand that it does not conduct itself and make its profits within a vacuum. Education is key. Healthcare is key.

Recall that this was a time in which no less a business luminary than Meyer Kahn, for a brief period, decided to do his public duty by becoming the head of the police force. Crime, he seemed to imply, would fall, if we simply viewed it as a business management problem to be solved. In fact, thinking clearly, Sunter’s point was and remains valid: in the same way that counter-terrorism is best fought in the cyberworld of money transfers and in the disruption of cross-border terrorist funding transactions, the on-the-ground realities of an ever-more distressed population of the disenfranchised in South Africa, would best be addressed through business continuing to thrive and to get involved.

At the very least, this thesis would ensure that the socialist and strong communist contingents of government and leadership would be muted, and that we would continue to remain first-world in our tax code and that farms and businesses would not be seized by the state under the euphemism of appropriation. These ideas, however – Sunter’s and others – depended on a single and very simple assumption. And that assumption is that business would behave ethically.