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Business Unity’s Bonang Mohale: South Africa is now a hard sell to the global investment community

By Ray Mahlaka• 5 September 2021

The incoming Business Unity SA president has fired a warning to law enforcement agencies to accelerate the prosecution of instigators linked to the violence and looting in July. Bonang Mohale also wants the government to urgently implement structural reforms.

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Helping the ANC-led government to become a capable state – one that works efficiently to correct historical inequalities and improve the economy and lives of its citizens – is on the top of Bonang Mohale’s priority list over the next three years.

This might be a lofty ambition for Mohale, who was elected on Monday, 30 August, as president of Business Unity SA, the country’s biggest business organisation, replacing businessman Sipho Pityana.https://buy.tinypass.com/checkout/template/cacheableShow?aid=eviNBV2Qpu&templateId=OT6DLG6O8K6B&templateVariantId=OTVKV548LF0IV&offerId=fakeOfferId&experienceId=EXI8W7PN9OHK&iframeId=offer_9aa0727e3b723ff1f5e1-0&displayMode=inline&widget=template

Many people can arguably agree that the ANC-led government has spectacularly failed to become a capable state, with its decline accelerating fast in the past decade. 

Even Mohale agrees, saying this failure has been seen in “SA holding world records for all the wrong reasons”, regarding the country’s unemployment crisis, worsening inequality levels, poor education standards, the failures of small businesses and a society that doesn’t face consequences for being lawless.

“All of these pose a risk in taking all of us down,” he said, adding that the anarchy seen in July across Gauteng and KZN is likely to flare up again as the nation grows increasingly tired of a government that is bereft of ideas on how to deliver on its social and economic obligations.

“We chose to cut our own nose to spite our face with the rampant looting, which was engineered and orchestrated by the ANC’s internal factions. What they [the ANC factions] have demonstrated is that to settle their internal scores, they are prepared to burn the entire country,” Mohale said in a Business Maverick interview. 

He said it is hard for big business to promote SA as a safe and friendly investment destination for international investors when the key architects of the July violence have not been successfully prosecuted. After all, investors care about whether the rule of law is upheld by the government, which offers protection to their investments.

“It worries us, as organised business, that we know who the 12 suspects or dirty dozen [linked to the July unrest] are and yet we are tinkering around the edges. Instead of going for the jugular and targeting the treasonists who agitated and orchestrated the violence, we are going for the small fish because we are petrified to go for the big fish.

“It is frustrating because President Cyril Ramaphosa has given big business four overarching priorities in his recent State of the Nation Address: to help defeat the Covid-19 pandemic, accelerate the country’s economic recovery plan to create sustainable jobs, defeat State Capture, and create a capable state.”

Asked whether SA can be a capable state, Mohale said it is possible because it has been achieved in the past.

“We have proved that [creating a capable state] is achievable because on 27 April 1994, when we ushered in a new democracy, it was something never seen before. Our democracy was a negotiated settlement. We inherited a technically bankrupt state and managed to grow the economy during the Nelson Mandela presidency.”

Strong institutions such as the SA Revenue Service and National Treasury were built from scratch and survived the State Capture era – a sign that with the right leadership a capable state can be built, said Mohale. 

“We had very capable people who came from the National Treasury. There were the likes of Maria Ramos [former director-general of the National Treasury] and Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi [former minister of public service], who came into public service in their 30s and did an amazing job.”

During the Jacob Zuma presidency, organised business grew increasingly vocal and critical about institutions of accountability being repurposed for State Capture purposes and policy decisions that hobbled economic growth and stifled competition. Arguably, the removal of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in 2015, which unleashed turmoil in financial markets, forced organised business to find its voice.

Before 2015, big business was preoccupied with drafting technical economic recovery plans and social compacts, hoping that its efforts would move the country and its economic metrics in the right direction. Big business was criticised for not being proactive or hard-nosed enough in its criticism of government decisions, which had the potential to collapse the country.

By then, Mohale was already a formidable businessman. He is the former chair of Shell SA and ex-president of the Black Management Forum. Mohale has also held executive positions in organisations including Sanlam, SAA, Drake & Scull, Otis (SA), and now serves as the chair of Bidvest Group and the chancellor of the University of the Free State. He will still serve as the university’s chancellor while he’s the president of Business Unity SA over the next three years.

The “hard decisions” that Mohale believes are required to reform SA include the effective roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines (taking the jab to people’s homes, especially in rural areas, instead of relying on people going to vaccination centres), and reducing government debt that stands at nearly R4-trillion.

He also wants the government to bring down the compensation of SA’s 1.3 million public servants (total compensation amounts to more than R650-billion in 2021); wean off state-owned enterprises from public finances for their ongoing survival, and implement much-talked-about structural reforms such as the auctioning of radio frequency spectrum. DM/BM

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