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Political parties must stay out of business

So former Eskom chairperson Valli Moosa, under whose watch the ANC entered into a dubious deal linked to the building of the Medupi coal power station, has asked for a post-facto national debate on whether political parties should enter into business. Well, the debate has been raging for a while now since this shameful revelation. The recent entry into that debate was from Business Unity South Africa chief executive Jerry Vilakazi who pronounced without a tinge of irony that it’s OK for the ANC to be involved in business as long as it plays fair. Reminds me of the phrase that all is fair in love and war.

The purpose of going into business is to make a profit. Vilakazi’s statement that it is OK for the ANC to enter into the Medupi deal we must assume recognises that they will also pursue profit at all costs and make money like everyone else who is in the rat race. But the little matter of the ANC as the ruling party and the dispenser in chief of patronage seems to have escaped Vilakazi — he ventures an oxymoron in response, as long as the process is fair. This means that the ANC should have the ability to lose a bid against business competitors when in fact it will be a player (as part of the Hitachi shareholders) and a referee (as a virtually 100% owner and shareholder of Eskom). So other competitors must believe that this referee, who has entered the playing field under a new cap to make money like everyone else, will be fair. They must believe that the ANC could find it in their good hearts to decide against themselves in order to be fair and therefore lose money in the process.

Is this incomprehensible logic really the voice of business in South Africa? Is this the voice of people who often complain of government inefficiency? Today in the name of buying the face of the new administration they fail to speak out against blatant and “officialised corruption”. Busa is supposed to advise government against such overtly corrupt practices born out of a glaring case of conflict of interest. But alas in the face of corporate scandals the world over we have business people in South Africa who have resigned themselves to political correctness. It is impossible to engage them in a constructive dialogue about the future of the country. Look, in many ways this is understandable — our economy is too tiny and focused on the government as a big spender to ever dream of independent business. A close examination of this sentiment from the likes of Vilakazi, however, indicates how the ANC has managed to expand is fangs of patronage into the soul of business. Busa has done its members and the general public a disservice. It has spectacularly abandoned its role as a counterweight in civil society and an honest and dependable partner in building the economy. Maybe one must lower his or her expectations as this is the same Busa that has not said one word in alarm about the parlous state of black ownership of the JSE revealed recently. It is the same grouping that has not said so much as a murmur against big business which is refusing to transform meaningfully, leaving that to the Black Management Forum.

The reality is, quite frankly, that the ANC will not play fair in business. If it did, this would be a new ethos altogether that it is not capable of introducing. In fact this may well explain why successive ANC governments have been lethargic in introducing renewable energy into the county’s energy mix. Recently the Americans had to rescue our much-vaunted PBMR project which was going to be introducing nuclear energy as part of the solution to our country’s eminent energy crisis. Now we have a government that will drag its feet on these matters because they stand to benefit from a continuation of the generation of dirty energy. You then wonder why clean energy will never take off. The reason is simple: it is not in the commercial interests of the ruling party. Business should be at the forefront of visionary initiatives instead of countenancing what is essentially a scam and will see us rely on coal for the next 100 years. We have a business community that has lost all sense of long-term thinking and is happy to wallow in the ignorance of the new rulers of the day.

The matter of this constant blur between politics and business came under fire when the Auditor-General revealed that more than 2000 civil servants were being the adjudicators of business where they hold shares. Maybe Busa must ask them to be fair? The seeds of corruption are sown by this kind of conformity — a habit that continues to entrench backhand deals as the acceptable way of doing business, where only the connected few are able to access government tenders.

So back to the debate that Moosa is calling for, let me venture the following politically naive propositions:

  • Political parties must stay out of business, especially those parties that have access to taxpayers’ money. The conflict of interest in this regard can only further corrupt our already rotten procurement system in all spheres of government.
  • The ANC must create public confidence by leading by example to undo the Hitachi deal as promised by the ANC treasurer some time ago in the heat of electioneering. People like Moosa who are known to be upright and with a no-nonsense history must not allow themselves to be made the scapegoat of what is essentially “officialised corruption” by the ruling party. They have a responsibility to argue for the unscrambling of this egg if they truly believe that it was all done above board.
  • Political parties must be funded properly from the fiscus so that we once and for all remove the element of business thinking that they can buy favourable decisions by openly or secretly funding the ruling party in exchange for tenders. The comical situation where someone donated R10 million to the ANC and the following day was awarded a R20 million tender are stories that are going to make our corruption index continue to rise.
  • Office bearers such as cabinet ministers, mayors etc as well as civil servants must not be involved in business at all. It is no longer enough merely to “declare” what amounts to inappropriate benefit by politicians and civil servants while continuing to benefit unduly from the fiscus.
  • Legislation that will prevent civil servants from working for companies they have done business with is overdue and must be welcome by all who support stern measures to clamp down on corruption in both the public and private sector.
  • Surely all of this is crystal clear from the spirit of the Public Finance Management Act, Municipal Finance Management Act as well as the King Code of Corporate Governance. There’s a need for open and exemplary action against those that disobey these laws rather than a superfluous public debate. Methinks that this matter speaks to the loss of all sense of shame in the way that we conduct the affairs of the state. Corruption has become just too acceptable and we are finding all manner of sophistication to make it so. Let’s hope that Phosa’s yet another promise to withdraw from this shameful deal is true this time …