South African businesses as the saving grace in these murky times

President Cyril Ramaphosa this week called on business in South Africa to “stop moaning” and partner with government to address the challenges we face as a nation.

This bold statement comes in the face of intense criticism from the public and civil society of government’s handling of crises around energy, crime, job creation, and logistics. It is true that business can and must play a role in helping to fix the issues we face.

The Mineworkers Investment Company (MIC) recently hosted our annual business breakfast. A key issue that was explored was the role of business in mitigating some of the biggest social challenges that the country is currently confronted with.

Political analyst, Dr. Ralph Mathekga kick-started the event by unpacking the current state of socioeconomics in South Africa, and the future of the political landscape. Professor Busisiwe Mavuso, Chief Executive Officer at Business Leadership South Africa, gave a keynote speech on how businesses can leverage their platforms and influence in various industries to facilitate conversations geared towards solutions, best practices, and newer ideas that can bolster government efforts in tackling pressing issues facing the nation and growing the economy. These were some of the key takeaways from the gathering.

Drive change through key institutions

Businesses can make a difference in social issues by showing support to organisations that are working towards socio-economic change.

Being evaluative of policies that government has put in place is a fundamental aspect of democratic participation. A critical perspective does not only bring urgent attention to matters of social interest, but it can also help with promoting transparency as well as efficiency where regulations and excessive bureaucracy slow down or even hamper the completion of a certain task.

I believe the issue here was it was important for business, especially medium size and small ones to come together through their various business structures and have a collective voice to influence legislation and regulatory direction and amendments. There are many structures such as BLSA, BUSA, banking association, NEDLAC, BBC and industry associations which could be used as agencies for change. It is the responsibility of every business regardless of size to add their voice in helping to shape the future of our beautiful country. Many choose to remain outside, and work around the bureaucracy instead of being part of the solution.

In 1998, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) played a significant role in helping to improve the quality of legal decisions when they challenged the executive through collective legal action and emerged victorious in the historic outcome which ensured that antiretroviral drugs were made available to all South Africans. TAC demonstrated the power of social movements in helping to raise awareness, demand impartiality, and ultimately contributing to the health of our democracy as well as its citizens.

Today businesses can have a lasting positive impact on society by working with non-profit groups that are focused on confronting our ongoing societal challenges. Through financial backing and resource provision, businesses can enable social movements to effect change when it comes to delays in the development of new power generation and distribution infrastructure.

Policy reforms can leave the path open to businesses large and emerging to step in and help stabilise the energy supply and reduce the risks of load shedding. Literally ‘putting power in the hands of the people’ and accelerating the transition to renewable, independent energy sources.

Cut the smaller businesses a slice of the pie 

Big businesses should support smaller businesses in ways that will not only result in fruitful partnerships, but also stimulate economic growth, and foster social cohesion and inclusion. Other ways in which dominant industry players can empower smaller businesses include skills-building partnerships that can assist a developing business with accessing networking opportunities that will lead to growth.

Small businesses are often the source of innovation and untapped talent that big companies can leverage if they partner with them on projects and initiatives that might require combined expertise and resources.

Small business support needs to go beyond enterprise development for BEE scorecard purposes but should be about the inclusion of SMMEs in big businesses supply chains. Industry majors can diversify their supplier database by committing to procure a portion of their goods and services from SMEs. There's also a lot of growth potential in the African venture capital space and various investment vehicles such as Knife Capital, 10X-E and Mineworkers Investment Company’s Khulisani Ventures are working with start-ups in uncovering new opportunities that will encourage innovation, stimulate local economies, and build up Africa’s tech ecosystem.

Leverage the knowledge of retired executives

Economic growth can also come from collaborations with retired business executives on big or small undertakings. These seasoned industry professionals can lend business expertise to start-ups looking to grow their emerging markets, and also work with government in improving the performance of our state-owned entities (SOEs).

They can also be invited to lead workshops, conferences and speak at industry events where younger professionals will have a chance to network.

Retired business executives can also fulfil their civic duty by assisting with the implementation of government programmes and initiatives whilst transferring their wealth of knowledge to the civil service. Some can be strategic members of task forces and committees set up to address issues of corruption and maladministration.

During these uncertain times, ours is to look at adversity through a perspective which is similar to that of Thomas A. Edison when he said, “Most people miss opportunity because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” South Africa must learn to innovate on its path to renewal – we have to turn to each other for solutions and adapt to our changing social conditions and new market needs.

As entrepreneurs, investors, and corporate with a vested interest in the growth of South Africa’s economy — we also have a responsibility to address its socio-economic issues, partner and empower organisations focused on action-oriented initiatives and drive change that provides market access to smaller businesses that will in turn have an impact on job creation and poverty alleviation.