Jabu Mabuza: Great Team SA showing in Davos didn’t happen by accident.

Apart from contending for the “best dressed” award, as the chair of Business Leadership SA, Jabu Mabuza plays a key role in Team SA at Davos. We caught up for a few minutes just before the Telkom chairman headed home. In this insightful interview, he shares the reasons behind the new cohesion evident this year in the SA delegation – and unpacks the practical results starting to become evident after months of hard work behind the scenes. – Alec Hogg

Well, I finally caught up with Jabu Mabuza, the Head of Leadership South Africa and representative of business here in Davos. The one thing I think any outsider and insider has to be impressed with is the cohesion between business and government this year. We’ve never seen it like this before.

Alec, it’s something that’s been necessary. It’s something that has been missing. We’ve had all sorts of reasons why but we were very lucky. It was timely. I don’t think that having done the things we managed to accomplish last year, would have been possible without this true partnership of labour, business, and government. The president, by asking Pravin Gordhan and myself to lead the CEO initiative and look at this project we’re working on was indeed, very timely. One shudders to think about what life would have been with all the various threats of sovereign debt, ratings downgrade, and the challenges in the SMMEs and SOE government. We still have a way to go but I’m grateful that we have managed to do something. This whole theme about responsive and responsible leadership and addressing inclusive growth, is what we’ve been trying to for some time in South Africa.

Jabu, without blowing your own trumpet, the fact that you are now Head of Business Leadership and that there’s been a change from what opponents call white monopoly of capital to a much more inclusive leadership team… Has that helped at all?

Alec, by and large, there are more South Africans that want to do good and whose hearts are in the right place. You have fringes on either side but the majority of South Africans (white and black businesses) – there’s goodwill. There is still the desire to work together and find a solution but we’re not going to have this time forever. This goodwill is thinning, and thinning very fast. It is against this background that we at Business Leadership South Africa now have embraced national issues because we do see ourselves as part of a national asset. Being part of a national asset is not sitting on the side-lines and saying to government, “No”. It is to recognise that our economy and the liberation of our people had to be more than just a political enfranchisement and getting a vote on the social side and indeed, on the economic side. Economic transformation to lead this inclusive economy in a sustainable way is one thing that we at Business Leadership South Africa, are embracing.

It has to be different to what was started off in the initial basis where many companies just brought in different colour complexioned people, tried to make them into role models, and that whole BEE system didn’t work. We now, as you say, need to be more inclusive. How is it going to be different? How are things going to be different so that we don’t have another 20 years of abortions?

I think sincerity is going to be required. Genuine acknowledgement that we do have a problem is going to be required. Look, for South African-specific solutions that (as I said) are sincere and genuine. We might get it wrong again but I don’t think we have 22 more years to get it wrong yet again. The objective is not to do things for black people. It’s to get black people to start to articulate what it is that they see as empowerment. I think that this notion of asking empowerers how the empoweree should be empowered, is just not on.

Beautiful. That’s beautifully put. Just to look at it on a broader scale though, do you leave Davos feeling more encouraged? You were praiseworthy of the Team South Africa efforts from government, and rightly so but you also pointed out there were some big issues to be addressed when you got home.

Alec, I’m leaving Davos very enthused. The Deputy President has put it so aptly. We really did put our country in good stead by being here and we are going home with certain programs and projects that we need to do in furtherance of the work that we’ve done here for our participation in the region and in the globe on the broader macro global issues of growth. That’s the one side but also in our own internal situation, we do need to address issues in the regulatory space, particularly in the mineral space. We do have to go on and conclude the work on the labour reform work that the Deputy President has started and we’re looking forward to our first meeting in a year on the 30th of January – the CEO initiatives – in preparing to meet the President again before the State of the Nation Address to report back on the work we’ve done, take stock, and see if there’s anything that the nation and the President still thinks we have to continue to do.

Those CEO initiatives have been extremely successful. Talking yesterday with Stephen Koseff, he gave me a little insight into what’s happening with the…

The Youth Employment services… Yes, Stephen and Colin Coleman convened that work stream. It’s a very enthusiastic and ambitious plan to take out one million youngsters over a three-year period, expose them to the world of work, and give them some apprenticeships. We’re looking at the right things.

Those are incredible numbers but something else that jumps up at you as an observer of the South African business scene for many years, is that those who are driving these projects are entrepreneurs… You’re an entrepreneur from bootstraps up. Stephen Koseff is the Founder of Investec. You’ve got Adrian Gore from Discovery who’s also very involved. It’s almost like the people who’ve done it before are now also doing it for the country.

More than having done it before, Brian Joffe is there. We also have the institutional leaders like Dr. Dan Matjila, Sim Tshabalala from Standard Bank is one of our leaders in the stream. Mike Brown and Nicky Newton-King: these are South Africans that are saying, “What can we do? We all know what education skills and getting an optimum return can do for an economy.”

Elephant in the room. We know that there’s big trouble going on within the tenderpreneur faction and plundering of the state resources, etcetera. How do you see all of that working out?

Alec, my point of departure is ‘let us create an environment where there can be an honest and meaningful earning, recognising the gaps before we comment about what is not acceptable.

We know the facts, though. The facts are on the table. It goes right back to the hijacking of mineral reserves at Kumba by the Guptas (ten years ago, I think it is now) so it’s all on the table. It’s all part of the public record. Surely, it’s time to take a side or to start uncovering/exposing this and getting the country back on track.

The points you’re referring to are now matters of public record. There are various processes in place flowing from that State of Capture report by the Public Protector. Those are taking their course.

What’s happening with that report? Just tell me, what’s happening with the State of Capture Report because we hear it’s now been put on ice.

Well, I don’t know the details of where it’s at. All I know is that it is in the public debate and I’ve read in the media that certain people that have allegedly been mentioned in there, are taking place but that is on its own strength.

It’s in the public domain, and that’s the important thing.

That’s what matters but I’m saying that from where I stand as a businessperson, what we should be asking is, “How do we bring in everybody – business people and entrepreneurs – to say ‘here are government tenders. Here are private sector tenders. Are you offering the better product, the better price, and the better service? Have you won it transparently?” We should be supporting that.

And supporting a healthy economy, which then leads to growth, which leads to happiness for all.

Exactly. Indeed, we do need to get our economy growing again. There are a lot of headwinds ahead of us in the global space. As a net exporter of global commodities in the global space, things are not looking good. Therefore, we’ve got to make our own summer.

Jabu Mabuza is Chairman of Telkom. He is also Chairman of Business Leadership South Africa and the Head of the business delegation here in Davos. It’s always a pleasure and this special podcast was brought to you by BrightRock.