Alexander Matthews
Alexander Matthews

Cowardly big business is failing our democracy

Democracy is an ecosystem. Its survival is dependent on many things: a sound legislative framework, an independent judiciary, a vibrant parliament and a responsive government. Beyond this, it also needs a vigilant, proactive civil society, engaged voters and a free media: three elements that ensure government is held accountable for its actions, transparent about what it does and goaded into serving the best of interests of the people – not of those in power.

The Protection of Information Bill is one of the gravest threats to this ecosystem. It will critically undermine the ability for parliament, the media and civil society to ensure accountability and transparency in government. The ANC claims this law is to protect state security but, as many before me have pointed out, its wide-ranging mandate means it can easily be used to cover up wrongdoing, severely punishing those who dare to expose it.

Earlier this week, Pick n Pay’s chairperson, Gareth Ackerman, spoke out against the bill. He provided a calm and clear explanation of its potential to damage the economy and deter foreign investment. Financial information could be concealed, as could corruption – thereby severely stymieing the economic freedom needed to foster entrepreneurship and attract investors – both essential ingredients required to combat poverty and narrow the vast gulf between rich and poor.

While the dangers of the info bill seem self-evident, it is startling that so far Ackerman is the only significant businessman who has criticised it. The silence from the rest of business is as deafening as it is inexcusable.

When the prosperity of our economy, our democracy and our country’s future is being put at risk, you would have thought there would have been a cacophony of outrage from businesses – it is in their interest that the bill does not become law, after all. But no. Two of our biggest and most important business groupings, Business Leadership South Africa and Business Unity South Africa have not said a word. Neither have our largest companies.

What can explain this gutless behaviour: is business hoping this is a battle that will be fought by others? Or that the ANC will suddenly override its totalitarian instincts and dump the legislation at the last minute?

Perhaps a more plausible explanation is that many businesses are simply too afraid to stand up to government because they are reliant upon political goodwill to operate freely. Many businesses unquestioningly and sycophantically signed up to black economic empowerment. This was despite them knowing that BEE had little to with empowering blacks and everything to do with consolidating the ANC’s economic clout: a system designed to massively enrich a tiny yet powerful elite.

Big business thought it would get an easy ride if it cosied up to the ANC. And indeed, with loyal ANC cadres dotting the boards of some of South Africa’s largest companies, business has largely been left alone to get on with making money.

Now they’re really caught in a fix. Even if they are conscious of the long-term dangers of a law like the info bill, they are too entrenched in the ANC’s patronage network to speak out about it lest they incur the wrath of the party’s titans and lose business deals and political support as a result.

Our nation’s corporations should have been more careful when they made this Faustian pact with the ANC in the Nineties. In the afterglow of the first democratic elections it must have seemed pragmatic and sensible to cuddle up to the new snouts at the trough. But with the ANC’s non-racial values long squandered by the craven despots that call the shots in the movement now, the folly of such an approach has been exposed.

If the info bill is thwarted, it will certainly not be thanks to big business. It will be in spite of it: in spite of a group of companies that have cosily conspired with the ANC to maintain a status quo of wealth in the hands of a few, at the expense of the countless millions who remain economically oppressed.