Hard Truths: The GNU, Shell’s exit, corruption & ethics – Professor Bonang Mohale

South Africa urgently needs ethical leadership to heal a divided nation. That has been the call from business icon Professor Bonang Mohale, who is on an international list of the 100 most reputable Africans. In this interview with BizNews, Professor Mohale warns the new Government of National Unity (GNU) that leadership is “not an opportunity for enriching self”. He slams the lack of prosecutions of corrupt politicians and concludes “that there is no political will” and that “maybe, just maybe, the people who call themselves our leaders are accepting that stealing, cheating, bribery, State Capture is their form and definition of redistribution of wealth”. Asked about the Steinhoff scandal, he also slams big business for introducing corruption to local politicians as far back as former President Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. And, as a former Chairman of Shell – that is now disinvesting from South Africa – he describes how there was “absolutely no progress” on a multi-billion rand intiatiave “because of ideology that held us hostage”. Setting out the priorities for the GNU, Professor Mohale says: “Service delivery is the job description of these politicians.”

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Highlights from the interview

In a conversation with BizNews, Professor Bonang Mohale, a distinguished South African business leader, emphasized the urgent need for ethical leadership to unify the nation. Mohale highlighted that leadership should focus on improving the lives of the majority, not self-enrichment. He defined ethics as doing the right thing even when no one is watching and criticized leaders who only defend their actions based on legal technicalities rather than moral principles.

Mohale expressed disappointment in the lack of prosecutions for corrupt politicians, attributing it to a lack of political will. He cited the closure of the Scorpions and the unheeded recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as evidence of a systemic issue. He also noted that the Zondo Commission’s extensive findings on corruption have yet to result in prosecutions, reinforcing the idea that some leaders view corruption as a form of wealth redistribution.

Regarding the private sector, Mohale blamed businesses for introducing corruption to politicians. He criticized the ANC for not providing regulatory certainty and policy stability, leading to the exit of companies like Shell. He argued that sustainable economic development requires transformation, ethical leadership, good governance, and reliable service delivery.

Finally, Mohale stressed the importance of education and economic ownership for the indigenous population. He lamented the lack of progress in these areas and urged South Africa to learn from other African countries to ensure true freedom and development for its people.

Extended transcript of the interview  ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Chris Steyn (00:05.598)

South Africa urgently needs ethical leadership to heal a divided nation. That has been the call from business icon, Professor Bonang Mohale, who is on an international list of the hundred most reputable Africans. Welcome, Professor, and thank you for making time for BizNews.

Bonang Mohale (00:23.917)

Thank you for having me, Chris. Thank you.

Chris Steyn (00:27.966)

So, may I ask you firstly, what advice do you have for the Government of National Unity?

Bonang Mohale (00:38.157)

So the first would probably be, let’s remember that we are in this for the people, not for ourselves, because we have this leadership thrust upon us. Leadership is a privilege to improve the quality of lives of the majority of our people, a better life for all, not just for the elected few. It’s not an opportunity for enriching self. 

Chris?

Chris Steyn (01:14.366)

Sir, how would you see the leaders in this new Government of National Unity acting ethically? What do you expect of them?

Bonang Mohale (01:25.067)

So first, the definition of ethics is doing the right things even if no one is watching. Imagine that you are having lunch all by yourself and you’re still insisting on using a butter knife rather than the knife and fork that you are using for eating. It’s about ensuring that questions are not even asked. Because by the time the questions are asked, it might be too late. It’s not useful as a leader to say, no, no, no, no, I’ve not been found guilty by a court of law. Because leadership is about subjecting one to a higher form of measurement, of ethics, of principles, of the true North, of wholesomeness. It’s not about technically I’ve been to court therefore and I’ve been found guilty…the law in and of itself is not a good instrument of morality, of ethics, of principles. Therefore, we are no more human than we help others. Because when we help others, we are actually completing God’s work. Chris?

Chris Steyn (03:20.926)

Professor, how do you feel about the lack of prosecutions and convictions that we have seen of allegedly corrupt politicians?

Bonang Mohale (05:44.839)

So Chris, for me, I think it is consistent with this ANC-led government because the first thing that they did in 2007 on the way to Polokwane, we call it Polokowane, even though it was really in Mangkweng, is that they correctly identified the five things that are keeping us awake at night. 

When it comes to solution, they then say, let’s close down the Scorpions because the Scorpions were going after the ANC thieves. And their rationale was, we didn’t put you there to prosecute us as the thieves, we put you there to prosecute the Apartheid thieves. That’s why the Scorpions was closed. 

So no wonder then that after the TRC, the recommendation was that 300 of the people that submitted themselves to this process did not qualify for immunity and therefore they needed to be prosecuted. Therefore, it’s not surprising that 30 years into democracy, not a single successful prosecution. 

Similarly, we put in the Zondo Commission with great fanfare at the cost of a billion Rand. The first volume had 786 pages and it names 93 ANC comrades. And again, more than four years later, again, not a single successful prosecution. 

So I think let’s conclude that there is no political will. That maybe, just maybe, the people who call themselves our leaders are accepting that stealing, cheating, bribery, State Capture is their form and definition of redistribution of wealth. And therefore they see nothing wrong.

The final arbiter should be the electorate. And by God, did they demonstrate beyond any shadow of doubt in this last election that, by the way, the electorate is not that dumb after all. By punishing the ANC with a decline of 17%, 71 of their own members are now without a job. 

Bonang Mohale (08:10.051)

They now need to go to their former colonisers to form a Government of National Unity and by so doing seek their approval and their permission. And that will also erode the number of the Cabinet that they could have appointed 100%. Now they have to share it with these lot, but also with the 11 parties that are in the Government of National Unity. 

I think from now it’s a slippery slope towards a self-perpetuating vicious cycle of diminished influence and therefore diminished control, Chris.

Chris Steyn (08:53.406)

Professor, jumping from corruption in government to corruption in the private sector, how do you feel about the long-running Steinhoff saga?

Bonang Mohale (09:05.442)

It’s very clear that the people who introduced corruption to the politicians are the private sector because they are the ones that approached them. Some of them came innocently from exile, inxile, some of them from Robben Island, some of them from prison. It is business that said, you know, if you help me to do one, two, three, I could give you 10 Rand. 

It started from the first day when Mandela was released. Mandela was not allowed to go and sleep at his four-roomed house in Soweto, in Orlando, that he shared with his lovely wife, Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela. It was business that said, come and sleep in town, in the suburb, because your own people will kill you, smothering you out of love. 

Why didn’t we ask ourselves, as a people with great natural endowments, how did the first democratically elected President, Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela, afford not one, but more than one houses in Houghton. One of them has been converted into Sanctuary Mandela, a hotel now. The other one is what he has given to his children through the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Not once did we ask ourselves as a people, where did he get the money?

I’ve been working for 20, 30 years. I can’t afford a house in Houghton, but he affords more than one. At that time, we should have been much more awake and alert because the price of liberation is eternal vigilance. We were not vigilant there, and we made our Constitution for Mandela because we knew that he was a saint and true up until now we can’t trace a cent into his pocket that he got illicitly. 

But when we got another president, President Gedleyihlekisa Jacob Zuma, who agitated and orchestrated for State Capture, we didn’t know how to deal with him because we didn’t have the instruments to effectively and comprehensively deal with him because the Constitution was based for Mandela. And I think the ANC must regret the fact that it allowed President Zuma not to survive one, but more than eight motions of no confidence in Parliament. I hope it makes sense.

Chris Steyn (11:44.702)

Professor, as a former chairman of Shell, how do you feel about that company divesting from South Africa after 120 years of operation?

Bonang Mohale (11:58.174)

You see what business needs is regulatory certainty and policy stability. And what have we been giving business? Eskom alone, as one of 734 State-owned enterprises and State-owned companies, we have given 10 CEOs and 12 chairmen of the board in just 10 years.

So we had no interest in providing regulatory certainty and policy stability. Even the rating agencies are looking for only four things. Institutional, economic and financial strength, but also susceptibility to major risk events. That’s all it requires. 

We can’t even protect our people against floods in KwaZulu-Natal because we have not kept the drainage system free of debris, of sand, or even outgrowing trees. That’s why when we have major rains, when half of that water is supposed to seamlessly disappear into these drainage systems, it can’t. It forms torrent running rivers in our streets. So we have demonstrated that we have absolutely no interest.

Coming directly to Shell, they applied to do hydraulic fracturing in two lots, on the Karoo, but also offshore. They ultimately got the offshore license, but the one in the Karoo never came. We did what we could in four years to demonstrate beyond any shadow of doubt that this can be done safely, effectively and efficiently. We took some of these legislators to safe operations in the United States where we have done this safely and have converted this into game farms where the growth and the thriving of game is evident, but that wasn’t given. We were given 20 million US dollars to drill 24 wells each. That’s 1.4 billion rands.

Bonang Mohale (14:24.861)

Four years later, Shell had to say,  bring back the money, had we put it in the bank, even at 10% interest, we would have had better return on income. 

Now they started the Euro 5 specification on their refinery with engine or NREF across and NARTREF, but also CARTREF. So the first part we did, we did the front end engineering and design at a cost of 50 million US dollars.

We wanted to be fully compliant with Euro 5 specifications after taking out lead from our fuel, especially diesel. We had only three things to deal with. One was let’s agree the specification. The second was when is the implementation date. We set 2017. And then we had to speak about the cost recovery mechanism. 

We even shared with this government what is done by South Eastern Asian countries with refineries that look like ours, with almost the same tenure, 30 to 50 years, and say, these are the three things that they’ve done. 

And again, there was absolutely no progress because of ideology that held us hostage. This government could not see themselves giving four billion rands to the five refineries to fully comply with Euro 5 specifications and then they just disappeared. 

So Shell having been here for more than 120 years, they look and say, you know what, we are in 114 countries. Why are we tearing our hair out for clearly a country that does not need our services and our products? 

And therefore I’m not surprised that they ultimately left because what we should have learned is that the 48 years of Apartheid succeeded because of the Broederbond, their own business equivalent. Their 98 years of separate development succeeded because, again, business supported them. The 370 years of colonialism happened and was sustainable because business was there. 

Bonang Mohale (16:52.695)

We’re not even asking ourselves who is actually advising this ANC-led government, because in the old National Party they would never think of appointing a Minister of Finance without consulting business. Today they are making big changes without even talking to any of their Tripartite Alliance partners. So I think we’ve got many lessons for us to ingest, to internalise, and to implement. And that’s where I think we are falling short, Chris.

Chris Steyn (17:19.614)

Professor, how do you think is the best way for this government to try and rebuild the economy whilst at the same time trying to meet social needs?

Bonang Mohale (17:33.175)

I think that first the Government of National Unity needs to do a few things. One to say, because we are competitors for these votes, let’s accept that. Therefore, if there are 10 things to be done, let’s take the six on which we compete. Therefore, by definition, we don’t cooperate and collaborate and put it aside because we will never agree. 

But let’s look at the four where all of us agree and they are in the best interest of our people. This notion of common people’s greater good, acting in the best interest of our citizens, not of the politicians, not of the blue lights, not of a cavalcade of 10 motorcades, not of having two homes in Pretoria and in Cape Town, but really improving the quality of lives.  To say 30 years into democracy, it should be unacceptable that poverty still has primarily a black and feminine face. 

And therefore, agree on these four things. And without even thinking, number one on that list has to be transformation. Because this economy must look like us. If it doesn’t, it’s not sustainable. The majority of our people must have something to lose. Then they will protect this country. They will protect the businesses because they will see business as a national asset. 

Number two, we need to insist on ethical leadership. It doesn’t need definition. 

Three, we need to insist on good governance. Again, it doesn’t need definition. 

And then the fourth, we need to say, but our job description is service delivery. 

Now, 30 years into democracy, we don’t have a stable, reliable, and predictable energy supply. How do you go down the mine when you’re not sure when you’ll have electricity to bring up the crew that you’ve taken down there. You might as well just close the mine. How do you start an aluminum smelter, an iron ore smelter, or a steel manufacturing facility, or even a refinery, when you don’t know when electricity is going to go or to come? Again, it’s that regulatory certainty and policy stability.

Bonang Mohale (19:55.031)

Therefore, service delivery is the job description of these politicians. Lastly, it’s about having law and order, safety and security. Because without law and order, safety and security, who are we and what are we? Not only are we not safe on the streets, which we might even accept that you are within eye view of the people who don’t have wholesome intent, but we are not safe in our own homes with a six-foot walls, 220-volt electric fence.

That’s where a five-year old gets shot on his parents driveway, running out to welcome his father when he comes from work so that the father can pick him up and put him on the passenger seat and drive the less than 10 meters into the garage. And he feels absolutely fulfilled. And you have this five-year old killed in front of his father. Imagine how do you live with yourself as a father to say maybe they should have shot me instead of my five-year old because at least he’s got his entire life ahead of him because all of us dream that at some stage our children will bury us. There’s nothing more painful than a parent having to bury your own children. 

But by the way, it’s not new because we know that many five-year olds are dying from pit latrine toilets that we should have totally and absolutely eliminated 30 years into democracy. Michael Kompe but also Lumka Mkhethwa are two of the three that have recently died a sad, tragic, and regrettable death. How do we as the leadership sleep at night when it’s our own people that are really being decimated by our lack of humanity, our lack of care, our lack of love because these are our own biological children, flesh and blood, niece and nephews. Chris.

Chris Steyn (22:03.198)

Thank you very much, Professor. Any last words from you as we face the next five years?

Bonang Mohale (22:11.255)

I think one of the things we haven’t gotten right is we are the only African country that became free from colonialism and we did not substantially increase the quality of education because education is the shortest way in which one can transcend social classes. Since when is 30% an acceptable mark? 

Secondly, we have not changed the system of the economy where the ownership by the indigenous people is at least double digit. The only country that became free and didn’t do that now will be the first African country to be free from colonialism, and in just 30 years, handed back to our former oppressors. I mean, how can we be proud of that? 

I look back at the haunting words of the President of the ANC, Chief Albert Luthuli, who opined that even your worst and fiercest of enemy at their weakest should not rule you out as an option.

But this was accentuated by our first democratically elected president, Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela, when he said, you do not negotiate with like-minded people. You negotiate with your enemies. 

So as we look into the next 30 years, I think let’s remember the lessons from the rest of the Continent, because there is so much they can teach us. 

It is former President of ZAPU, Joshua Nkomo, who said something that came late to me is that it is possible for a country to attain its political liberation without its people being free. Whereas the Russian president, Mikhail Gorbachev, who gave us both Perestroika and Glasnost.

Bonang Mohale (24:40.471)

That led to the Iron Curtain going up and the Berlin Wall coming down and ushering in a wave of democracy and capitalism in the world and peace. He says we knew that the party was over when all we could do is talk about our history. Thank you, Chris.

Chris Steyn (25:05.278)

Thank you very much, Professor Mohale for making time for BizNews. I’m Chris Steyn.

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