The power of individual citizens and corporations to overthrow corruption, cronyism and nepotism cannot be underestimated – but it must be increased, says former financial minister Pravin Gordhan.
Active citizens have already hammered auditing company KPMG and forced PR firm Bell Pottinger into administration, but there are still many ways for concerned South Africans to rebuild our society, he believes.
Gordhan was speaking at a masterclass organised by Henley Business School Africa in Johannesburg, as part of its movement for #CorporateActivism driven by Jon Foster-Pedley, the dean of Henley Business School in Africa, who said: “No longer will we accept collusion by corporates, local or multinational, in business or government malpractice. Apart from causing deep damage to the prospects of all South Africans, especially the poor, in today’s increasingly transparent world it shatters the brand, business and reputations of companies and individuals, as we have vividly seen in a number of recent cases.” The event was attended by the school’s alumni, who hold high positions in private and public sector organisations throughout the country.
Gordhan urged them to visibly stand up against wrongdoing, because collectively, individuals and corporations could create a better country. “The future is as good as you want to make it. There’s been a lot of damage done and if Moody’s downgrades us further after the February budget it will be worse and take five to 10 years to recover. So ask yourselves every day what we can do to not get there, rather than recover from it.”
If somebody tried to steal your car you might respond with your fists, yet we meekly allow people to steal our entire country, he said. “Human beings by their very nature will always do crooked deals. For certain types of activities, a short stint in jail can be quite educational.”
Unleashing the full potential of activism required people to devote their time to issues that could contribute to meaningful change and social cohesion. A practical way for companies to do that was to take in young people and give them work experience. ‘There’s a 70% chance that after having held a job and learning the discipline of work you are more able to get a job and hold it down. It might mean a small dent on the profit side but it will contribute to real human beings who are completely cut off from these opportunities at the moment,” Gordhan said.
Gordhan also urged companies to pay more generous wages at the lower levels, since a basic salary of R3,500 a month was far too little to live on, especially if 40% of that went on transport to get to work. If workers had no disposable income, nobody would buy the goods being produced. “If society doesn’t do well, how can your business do well?” he asked.
South Africa might need a Fair Pay Commission to curb the extravagant salaries some executives receive, he suggested, since huge wage disparities won’t help the country to achieve unity. We need to acquire a greater sense of humanity and compassion, Gordhan stressed. “Corporations can’t just look at the bottom line. Business leaders must be willing to stand up against the wrongs and for the right and develop activism.”
Gordhan suggested starting a crowdfunded anti-corruption scheme to support NGOs that are fighting corruption in the courts. Their action benefitted every honest citizen, and they could expose more criminals if they had more money.
South Africa also needed a better way of looking after whistleblowers who put themselves in danger by exposing crooks, he added, but at the moment even the law enforcement authorities were captured by criminals, he said.
The legacy of Apartheid had left fault lines that still damaged us today in the lack of assets and opportunities for black people, and that was fueling frustration in workplaces, Gordhan warned. “Activism must transform them into different kinds of entities that embrace transformation. We need to transform our economy into one which is a lot more inclusive.”
Change was also needed in the political ranks, he stressed, because for South Africa to succeed it needed political leaders who put the national interest first and set their personal interests aside.
Gordhan made it clear that he will support Cyril Ramaphosa at the upcoming ANC elective conference. The next leader must understand the environment, build a new sense of social cohesion, fight corruption, put the country’s interests first and work hard to lead South Africa out of the financial downgrade that ratings agencies have imposed. “For me, Mr. Ramaphosa certainly represents that,” Gordhan said.
If South Africa got political leaders who put the nation’s interests first, things would look much more optimistic within only three months, he predicted, citing the fresh opportunities for Zimbabwe now Robert Mugabe has been overthrown.