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These are not interesting times

07 Sep 2016 |

These are not interesting times

By Adam Craker, CEO, IQ Business

The expression ‘may you live in interesting times’ is believed by some to be a translation of an ancient Chinese curse. Though many have now debunked its roots in Chinese tradition, we still hear it being used habitually. At cocktail functions with business associates we nod in agreement that we live in ‘interesting times’. All too often it’s politically cautious code for “what the hell is this government doing?”  Let me be clear, we do not live in interesting times. Yet we continue to be merchants of the expression because frankly, we do not want to upset government. If we are to get South Africa back on track, its time business stopped skirting around the critical issues of governance failure rolled up with elements of state capture that threaten our country.

Sipho Pityana was unequivocal in The Sunday Times, 4 September 2016 – “Pityana is highly critical of the business lobby for allowing itself to be used by the government to try to stave off a sovereign ratings downgrade without insisting on the removal of Zuma as a condition of its assistance. As long as Zuma remains president, these efforts are as useful as spitting in the wind, he says.”

The leadership issue aside, these are desperately troubling times that require business to take responsibility and speak out on a number of issues, not least in support of the Minister of Finance. But speaking out is not enough; we must also specifically offer practical, deadline-based solutions to get our country back on a growth trajectory.

So, in that spirit, here’s five things government and business can do to now to change South Africa for the good:

Let’s start with the National Development Plan (NDP). It requires a significant boost, and a business-like “Agile” application before it can hope to have its intended impact.  It is time for the Minister in the Presidency to announce to Parliament, three specific and measurable action steps – based on NDP objectives – that can still be achieved in this financial year. This is one way to boost investor confidence and for government to show us they are serious about application.

The responsibility for transformation and growth does not only rest on government alone. Business must do better to empower black entrepreneurs and small businesses through enterprise development that goes beyond box ticking to achieve BEE points. JSE listed companies should publish – with their integrated annual reports – specifically how their enterprise development relationships are geared towards sustainable long-term partnerships.

The global trend of digitisation poses a mass of possibilities and new realms of potential. Closing the digital divide will be a boon for entrepreneurs and education. It is time that the Government and ICASA reach a decisive policy agreement to start the process of spectrum auctions by 2017 so that we can roll out free Wi-Fi services and expand digital transformation.

Our State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are in a rut and worryingly; big business has gone quiet on the latest development at SAA and the ominous announcement of the Presidential State Owned Companies Coordinating Council. Partial privatisation of SOEs has proven successful. Why do we not see more of these hybrids taking shape? It’s time that the Ministers of Public Enterprises & Finance trigger the process for commercialisation of specific SOEs: SAA, SA Post Office, PRASA & Transnet.

Though it is no panacea for the nation’s ills, enhancing education outcomes is the most pertinent area in which reform and improvement can manifest rapidly. While the Department of Education faces many challenges in rolling out quality education for all South Africans, business too can play a role. Every JSE listed company should form an active partnership with a primary and secondary public school in townships and rural South Africa.

These are not interesting times. There is nothing ‘interesting’ about our unemployment rate –especially for our youth, or the spector of ratings downgrades, increasing government debt and an all-time high for our fiscal deficit.  The forementioned Chinese curse is actually said to translate to “Better to be a dog in a peaceful time, than to be a human in a chaotic period.”


We find ourselves on the cusp of a recessionary cycle in the midst of a political crisis yet big business in South Africa has by and large remained cowardly in its quiescence. The solutions offered here for government are made out of a sense of duty and sincerity. But in pointing a finger at government, I appreciate that the remaining fingers point back at business. It is time business spoke out against poor governance and corruption and simultaneously takes active steps in offering our services, resources and skills to provide practical solutions that will lead us back to a growth trajectory – and relegate the Chinese curses to the past they come from.