William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Score 2012 as a bad year for good business

Billionaire Cyril Ramaphosa, President Jacob Zuma’s new understudy, is perceived by big business as the potential rescuer of what passes here for the market system. Hope so for their sake, since a scorecard of our industrial and commercial titans reveals they had a bad 2012.

The local strain of capitalism has become dank and unpleasant, in need of some judicious hacking. The massacre at Lonmin’s Marikana operation and subsequent events elsewhere cast a harsh spotlight on multinationals in the appropriately named extractive sector.

These companies — coincidentally, Lonmin is chaired by Ramaphosa — inadvertently have done more to bolster the prospect of nationalisation than any number of agit-prop Julius Malemas could have achieved. Nevertheless, the Stinking Capitalist Award for 2012 goes rather to the microlending industry, whose practices rival those of Shylock.

Relying on debtor ignorance and illiteracy to charge exorbitant interest and inflate repayments, unscrupulous lenders force borrowers into a relentless debt spiral. With the co-operation of ethically challenged attorneys they then rely on often illegal salary garnishee orders for repayment, sometimes leaving the hapless borrower with zilch in their pay packet.

First runner-up is Woolworths, for copying Frankie’s “old-fashioned” range of soft drinks. Fortunately there was sufficient public outrage at Woolies’ hypocrisy — it makes much in its marketing of its support for small producers — that the retailer backed off.

Second runner-up, also for corporate bullying, is Dolce & Gabbana, which sued a small Hout Bay gift store that called itself Dolce & Banana. Owner Mijou Beller was making an “objectionable mockery” and diluting the cachet of its brand, claimed the multibillion-dollar Italian fashion house.

Third runner-up, yet another would-be bully, is Absa. It threatened to interdict Solidarity, but then backed off, because the union set up stopabsa.co.za.

The website mobilised the public against what Solidarity called Absa’s “cold and clinical” retrenchment process. This included an emailed culling of staff, which Solidarity successfully challenged in court.

Given that 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of the cellphone industry in SA, a special Greedy Piggies award must go to industry leaders Vodacom and MTN collectively. Compared to similarly developed economies, SA has the highest call and data charges, providing the top two — Vodacom, too, is chaired by Ramaphosa — with a combined turnover of close to R100-billion and pre-tax earnings of about R26-billion.

On the positive side, a cheer for Nedbank. Its chair, Dr Reuel Khoza, courageously bemoaned in the Nedbank annual report the “degenerating moral quotient of SA’s political leadership”, a “strange breed — determined to undermine the rule of law and override the constitution”.

An entourage of African National Congress notables immediately proved his point, calling for his sacking and a boycott of Nedbank, as well as deriding him as a pawn of colonialist and racist paymasters. Khoza, however, is not only still the Nedbank chair, but returned to the fray in a memorial lecture honouring Abram Tiro, assassinated by the apartheid government.

Khoza lambasted the present ANC’s “masquerade of leadership — not predicated on principle”. Then he took aim at the education system for producing “semi-literate, semi-numerate” school leavers; at the country’s intelligentsia for behaving as a “priestly elite” rather than talking truth to power and finally at the business community for doing everything possible to remain on the “right side” of power.

Who knows whether Khoza will survive as Nedbank’s chair? But if he does, the banking group’s annual report in April will likely again make for interesting reading.

So the Diogenes Lamp Award goes to Khoza, a rare phenomenon in a generally craven corporate world. Forelock tugging was ingrained into business leaders during the apartheid era but here at least is an outspokenly honest executive whose concerns about the country, in which his business operates, outweigh short-term political expediency.
Ramaphosa should take a leaf.

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