Lutz (ex-Niemoller): Even Cyril the Indecisive trumps SA’s timid Big Business

This scathing Open Letter to SA president Cyril Ramaphosa arrived exactly nine months after we published the last missive from our correspondent who uses the nom de plume Carl Lutz (ex Niemoller). Once again, it captures the zeitgeist of the moment. This populace has grown increasingly restive at the unholy alliance between an appeasing SA business community and the blundering bullies in the ANC. In their trademark no-holds style, Lutz takes no prisoners while uncovering ‘uber truths’ that few others in South African society possess the testicular fortitude to voice. While remaining anonymous, the author is well-known to me. And no, it’s not Rob Hersov. – Alec Hogg

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By Carl Lutz*

Dear Mr President

Waiting for the lights to come back on the other day, I started imagining your in-tray. Is that the NHI Bill right on top, mindlessly sent your way the other day by the NCOP? Good luck with that. I could tell you what to do with it, and the Constitutional Court will eventually agree with me and send you scurrying back to square one (probably more politely than I would). But admittedly, I don’t have to deal with the comrades and their grasping intentions. They must be salivating at the thought of all that money you’re planning to misappropriate from taxpayers into the NHI’s proposed piggy bank.

What will probably happen, if long experience of your “leadership” style is anything to go by, is that apart from its prominent role in the election campaign, the Bill – and the need to take an actual decision about it – will quickly be forgotten as new crises crowd in. Your in-tray is probably more of an in-warehouse at this point. What’s that dusty tome in the far corner covered in mouse droppings and pigeon poop? Ah yes, the National Development Plan.

This time, though, it might not be quite so easy to pretend a problem doesn’t exist, what with business giving the impression that it might, perhaps, depending on the time of day, all things being equal, in the fullness of time, defend its rights, for once. This would be a nice change from rolling over for you to tickle its tummy (shortly before being delivered a hefty kick in the groin). After the NCOP did its ideological duty last week, Business4SA sent you a smoke signal (the electricity was off again) saying: “Our concerns, recommendations, research, data and inputs, as well as those made by a wide range of experts and affected stakeholders, have been summarily ignored by the parliamentary portfolio committee on health and the NCOP.”

Read more: Lutz (ex-Niemoller); Listen up Cyril – here’s the antidote to your engineered derangement

Well now there’s a surprise. Not because the comrades had ignored the business sector (that’s par for the course). But because business actually looks – at least for a brief moment – as if it might be doubting the “collaborate, partner, support” mantra that’s guided its relationship with the government since 1994. That approach might have worked with Mandela as president, but ever since Mbeki’s era of the arms deal, quiet diplomacy and Aids denialism, it’s been an outright scandal.

B4SA found it “bewildering” that its “constructive and supportive” approach to the NHI Bill had been rebuffed. Really? Come on, seriously. How is it possible that business leaders haven’t realised that this approach hasn’t worked for more than 20 years? In private, CEOs up and down the land rail against punitive, ridiculous, ruinous legislation and policy – not to mention the daily operational failures of your government that sap spirits and profits. But yoh they are careful who they say this to. Just ask them to say these same things to your face or in public and they run for the hills. It’s just pathetic. Criminal, even.

So for me, it’s a genuine question: why does business care so much what the ANC thinks? What’s it so scared of? Why isn’t a single company prepared to face off against Ebrahim Patel, your minister of little trade and less industry, the destructive and arrogant Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Commission and the ideologically weaponised Competition Commission?

A fine? Challenge it in court. Do a Stalingrad and keep it in the courts for decades. Litigation about defying BEE legislation? Defend it on the grounds that the company Articles of Association forbid discrimination. Take it all the way. The Constitutional Court, the UN Commission on Human Rights, wherever. But no, business sits there meekly nodding and saying “it’s the law”. And my absolute worst, public statements that opine that “BEE is a national imperative”. It’s CEOs’ favourite fallback on any public platform as they (and their boards) wilfully overlook the damage this “imperative” is causing.

The reason, as least to me, is obvious: they’re afraid of being called racist, unpatriotic, anti-transformation, words your party loves to fling around when the going gets tough. So on this, and almost all other controversial or destructive issues, they speak sotto voce or from behind the B4SA fig leaf, always taking the line of least resistance. Usually, that means doing nothing, and hoping to God that the DA, the Helen Suzman Foundation, the South African Institute of Race Relations or Afriforum fight their battles for them. It’s a disgrace, and probably the reason your close confidante, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, has no respect for business. What a bunch of cowards. Some of them even say that they’re protecting their companies by staying silent.

I read an oped piece the other day which said that business must simply stop appeasing government, and consider some class action suits. Now there’s a thought. Given the parlous state of the country nearing total collapse, patriotism conceivably demands it.

Sure, the Chinese don’t criticise their government, but that’s because doing so could land them in jail or dead. And probably because China’s booming businesses don’t have that much to complain about as the cash rolls in from all over the world. Hell, the lights even stay on over there. Besides which, we don’t trash our country as citizens; we trash you and your party. Not the same thing, although you always think it is.

It’s not just the load-shedding, the logistics, the crime and the corruption. It’s the laws. And the NHI Bill is just the latest example. I doubt you saw it – you were probably reading Mavuso Msimang’s evisceration of your party in his resignation letter – but recently, the Free Market Foundation’s policy head Martin van Staden encouraged businesses to stop thinking they “owe the South African government a duty of obedience in conscience” and ignore BEE laws. He found a lot of support in the comments.

“Big business should have stood up against it from the outset. It undermines every hardworking, intelligent person of colour as they are automatically assumed to be sub-standard in businesses that practice BEE,” said LauraS. Well, quite. BEE was a bad idea in conception, and it is a bad idea in execution. It’s just a bad idea altogether. I’m genuinely sick of hearing from CEOs in public that BEE is a great idea, it’s just its implementation that’s problematic. The truth is that it can’t be improved. It can’t be doubled down upon. It must be trashed. We must think of another way to achieve growth and equality that incentivises taxpayers. More corruption-free carrot, less cadre-deployment stick.

Business in any event would have made major advances in achieving equality of opportunity if left alone. Every business I know is race-neutral. They simply don’t care. Left to their own devices, they do what makes sense. The right skills, the right strategy, the right ownership. ESG demands it. So does any company’s code of conduct. So it’s simply not necessary to tie businesses up in red tape in pursuit of the kind of objectives only the successor of an apartheid government could have dreamt up. But you do it anyway, as if you were tying a seal in an old fishing net. And the result is the same. The subdued and miserable creature will survive for a while but eventually it will drown or starve to death.

While businesses die in the streets, your government seems to think its job is to put a knee on their throats. Yet CEOs respond by being “constructive and supportive”. It boggles the mind. Wouldn’t it be better if they left the bully bleeding in the gutter and got on with doing what they’re supposed to be good at: generating income, producing returns and creating jobs? Anything else is just an obstacle to growth and shareholder returns. Accepting every obstacle as a necessary evil and staying silent and inactive is just irresponsible.

Read more: Best of 2022: Niemoller is back with another blistering Open Letter to Ramaphosa

It’s the same old routine every time. The government flies an outrageous kite; business naively “collaborates” and might even win a few concessions; and the government ends up with what it wanted in the first place. Plus, the bonus of telling uneducated voters that if it weren’t for the pesky business sector and civil society, they would have had free this, that and the next thing.

We must stop doing that. Sometimes bad ideas can’t be improved, and the NHI as conceived in the Bill is one of them. Doctors and nurses will simply emigrate in their droves. High standards in the private sector will evaporate. The entire health industry will nosedive, producing even less healthcare to the population than it does at the moment.

The government knows this and doesn’t care, because at this point the NHI Bill is a lever in the ANC election campaign. Business knows it too, and has done for years. But what has it done? Played nicely and received a gut-punch for its pains. As always. Years of collaboration and nada. And when business people are called on this failed strategy, the verbal gymnastics employed to justify their appeasement is just appalling.

All businesses say they care for their people. Great, as they should. But why does that concern stop at the factory gate or office door? Don’t businesses care that their people are the victims of rampant crime? That the commuter rail system lies in ruins? That their employees will be stripped of the right to choose their medical care? That their kids struggle for a decent education? That their skill and ability don’t matter anymore? Isn’t it their responsibility to stand up for their people, if, as they always say, their people are their “most valuable asset”?

Every major company has a mission statement. They feature prominently on company websites. In many cases they’re corporate BS dreamt up by the HR department. But isn’t it time for some honesty in these mission statements? What about “our company must simply survive in whatever environment government finds acceptable”? That would be true, wouldn’t it? How about “we must never be seen to be criticising government or the ANC because we don’t like being called names”? And more: “we forbid any executive from critical commentary because we fear regulatory backlash from government”. That too, is true.

I hear it often: “Our job is to trade successfully and deliver a return to shareholders, not to meddle in politics”. What a cop-out. Business can’t deliver returns to shareholders with no electricity, no means to transport their goods, complete service delivery failure and the inability to hire and fire who they want or trade with whom they want.

Mr President, back in the days when you were deployed to business, in the gaps between filling your pockets and your sofas, you must have experienced the frustrations which, on your watch, are driving companies out of the country or forcing them to retrench tens of thousands of workers. Restored to politics, your capacity for forgetfulness, “shock” and turning a blind eye is unrivalled. One can only hope that next year it will force you out of office. You just haven’t earned the right to be there.

But business doesn’t have to wait for an election to force a change. It can start today, by showing that it really cares about its people, and the people of the country more broadly. In its own interest if nothing else. Each business enterprise. Individually. Not hidden behind business associations. Get tough. Get rude. Get threatening. Do something, anything. Speak up. Just say no. Take action where it hurts. Act in concert. Do your job. Make it count.

Happy Christmas, all.

*Carl Lutz is the nom de plume of a leading South African who previously wrote under the name of Niemoller.

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