What business is willing to say to itself is as important, as what it says to government. Which is why the document, a contract with society, released by an organisation representing big business, Business Leadership SA’s Contract with South Africa may be setting a new tone not only on how business deals with government but also how major economic actors deal with the economy’s problems.
When most commentators are asked how South African business should respond to government, the common response is that it should complain, loudly and in public. This view has no doubt firmed since the March cabinet reshuffle damaged the economy and denouncing “white monopoly capital” became a refrain of the ANC’s patronage faction. Business, as the argument goes, should stand up for itself even if that means offending government.
But, while this approach makes great headlines and makes many people feel better, it does little or nothing to advance business interests or fix the economy.
Those who want business to shout at government seem to assume that this country has no history. But it does, and it is a history in which business is associated – and not only in the minds of patronage politicians – with the minority privilege which apartheid ensured. No one would use the phrase “white monopoly capital” if it did not seem to describe the world in which many black business and professional people feel that they live.
This makes the relationship between business and government more difficult than in most other countries. It also means that politicians cannot afford to be seen to be ordered about, by business. After all, what better way to confirm that “white monopoly capital” rules us all than to insist that business people tell politicians off in public?