KZN Top Business Awards speech by Lincoln Mali

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Leaders of business, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a great honor for me to be here on behalf of the Standardbank Group. Congratulations to all the businesses here tonight, each one of you has contributed to:  

  • The tax revenues used by the government to build this country’s roads, schools, hospitals etc
  • The social services provided by the government to its citizens, such as the army, police, fire services, subsidized housing etc
  • Provide much needed jobs and a better life for your employees and their beneficiaries;
  • The tax revenues for critical social grants and
  • For those of you who export, you help the country get much needed foreign currency

I salute all of you as business people, I commend your efforts and I wish that the whole KZN and the whole country would fully appreciate what business do and help business to grow so that we can grow and develop our country.

Congratulations to all who have been nominated for tonight’s prestigious awards, its testimony to your diligence, passion, commitment and excellence. May I also ask you to applaud your spouses, partners, significant others, colleagues, business partners, workers and clients for their contribution to your success.

When I was asked to speak at an auspicious occasion like this, I thought and long about what to say, and I was overwhelmed by three significant events, the 1976 uprisings, more than 40 years ago, Nelson Mandela’s vote here at Ohlange in 1994, and the last national elections a few weeks ago. Why are these events linked to such a beautiful ceremony, why would a banker comment about these matters and what is its relevance for you?

As I reflected on these events, and as I think of our future, and the future of our beloved children.

I was captivated by the seminal words from Dr Martin Luther Jr:

“When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact…that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance; We’ve learned to fly the air like birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters…”

Our world is more polarized, more unequal, and there are greater divisions between those who are local versus those who are foreign, a widening gap between those who are educated and those who have no education nor skills, between business and labor and there are growing conflicts along political, religious and cultural lines across many countries.

  1. The case for accelerated societal change 

Over the last 10 years, we have witnessed 3 major political events that completely shocked the political and economic elites throughout the world. The first was in the Middle East – the so-called Arab Spring, in the UK it was the Brexit movement, and in the USA, it was the Donald Trump victory. The question we have to reflect on and ponder is – How could the political and economic elites in these places miss the signs, how could they not anticipate these developments and why could they not hear the frustration and anger of those who felt “left behind”?

It may well be that these political and economic elites heard but did not listen. On the other hand, it may be possible that the danger posed by the discontent was underplayed or under estimated. Worse still, it may well be that their narrow political or economic interests blinded them to the dangers they faced. Historians will eventually answer these questions for us, but what is clear, is that these movements, in the UK, USA and the Middle East had a lot to do with the anger, resentment and frustrations about inequality, unemployment and an overriding disgust of real or perceived cosy relationship between the political and economic elites. Will Gore argues,

“it is surely undeniable that at least a portion of the respective British and American electorates were motivated by shared concerns: disgruntlement over the effects of globalisation; rising inequality; unease about immigration; and dissatisfaction with a seemingly self-perpetuating establishment. These two historic votes were both, in their own ways, a response to the same question: are you happy with the status quo? The answer now is abundantly clear on both sides of the Atlantic.”

There is also a sharp rise in populist and nationalist movements across Europe. These movements have enjoyed success at the ballot box in Italy, Finland, Estonia, Hungary, Greece, Spain, France, Austria and Germany. These movements have coalesced into a unified political movement within the EU. The sharpest minds, the leading institutes and the most prominent political and economic elites have hitherto failed to anticipate these political and institutional earthquakes.

South Africa’s socio-economic trajectory

South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, with the largest part of the population suffering from unemployment, poverty and under-development. When you overlay racial, gender and youth dynamics on this, then you have a huge challenge facing us. Ladies and gentlemen, if the people of the Middle East had a case to be aggrieved, if the people of Britain voted against the status quo, or if the anger of many in the USA propelled Trump to power –  how much resentment, anger and a brewing frustration do we individually and collectively think there is in South Africa? Do we, as those who are in fortunate positions of economic and political power, understand this, are we able to see the warning lights, do we have the finger on the pulse of our staff, customers and society?

Did we read anything from the Vuwani burning of schools, the recent xenophobia attacks, the recent national elections results, the Fees Must Fall Movement, the Marikana strike and massacre? Do we think that we are more attuned to these signs than our counterparts in the Middle East, USA or Britain? I would like to submit that we, as political and economic elites, are no better off than our counterparts in the Middle East, USA, Britain or Europe.

Ladies and gentlemen, fellow South Africans, the current South African socio-economic trajectory will have disastrous consequences for both the current government (ruling party); the corporate and commercial sector and for the population as a whole (rich and poor).

It is not sustainable. Everybody understands that, but few genuinely appreciate it. Our long-term interests, as people, parents, leaders, and stewards of large corporate or entrepreneurs who run their own businesses are at risk-   we need to start to take urgent and bold steps to lead the process of addressing some of the most urgent socio-economic challenges our country faces.

Many of us are unfortunately caught in a trap as individuals, as corporates, business, and civil society organizations – we know what needs to be done, we appreciate how difficult it will be, we dread how long it will take, we are wary of the drain on resources and the time required to make this really work. The harsh reality is that these are our challenges, our common problems – this is our country, and each of us (economic elites or political elites) has to play a role in rebuilding this society. The challenges we face are enormous; the path ahead is long and arduous, but as seductive as they may seem, shortcuts are not the answer.

We as the elites, the most fortunate, societal leaders, must engage our fellow South Africans who are less fortunate. We must demonstrate, through words and even more so through concrete deeds, that we hear their desperate cry as they toil daily through a life of misery, poverty, and hardship. We must accept that their patience is wearing thin. We must articulate a clear path towards prosperity for them, with clear timeframes and milestones. Our failure to do this will see our version of the Arab Spring, Brexit or Trumpxit. We are sitting on a ticking timebomb of inequality, poverty, youth unemployment and underdevelopment.

What can we do to help change the direction of our country?

Ladies and gentlemen, South Africa is at an inflection point, there are stark choices facing us, to either be a failed state or to create prosperity for more rather than less. There are competing views on how we should proceed, these competing views and differences are to be found everywhere from within political parties, to government departments, and among members of civil society and sometimes within families. One of the big debates is about the role of business in socio economic development- there are those who argue that the role of business is to generate enough profits and returns to its shareholders, whilst on the other extreme, there is a strong counterview, that calls for the abolishment of the market economic system and free enterprise. I would like to argue that there is a different way, this is way that sees shared prosperity within countries, regions, communities and the world over. In that context of that shared prosperity goal, the role of business is to create economic value in a way that also creates shared value for society. It requires business to reconnect company success with social progress.

In the words of Professors Porter and Kramer, shared value is not about social responsibility, philanthropy or even sustainability, although these are important, shared value is a new way to achieve economic success. It is not only on the margins of what companies do, but at the centre of it.

This new way of thinking is required to deal with the issues I raised at the start of my conversation, namely the coming 43rd anniversary of the June 16 uprisings; the 25th year of our democracy and the results of our national elections. There are about 7 major issues to ponder for our country:

  • According to the latest World Bank report (2018), South Africa is the most unequal country in the world and its poverty is the “enduring legacy of apartheid”. Previously disadvantaged South Africans hold fewer assets, have few skills, earn lower wages, and are still more likely to be unemployed.
  • South Africa’s unemployment is one of the highest rates in the world at 27,6%, this is a national crisis that feeds two of the country’s other big socio-economic challenges of poverty and inequality. According to StatsSA, the ticking timebomb, however, is youth unemployment at a 55,2%. Our young people are increasingly unemployed regardless of education levels and there are those who have neither jobs nor an education.
  • We have already been downgraded by 2 of the rating agencies, if Moody’s were to downgrade us, this would have horrible consequences for all of us. These consequences would start with negative implications for government borrowing costs and broader effects on the currency, banks and state-owned enterprises, this will all impact our broader economy and our society.
  • There is a visible increase in violent protests across South Africa – we are witnessing numerous incidents of the burning of buses, trains, schools, trucks and government buildings etc
  • There is something that must concern all of us – almost one in three eligible voters in South Africa are either so disenchanted with politics or for whom democracy means so little in their daily lives that they did not turn up even to register to vote. The picture is even more bleaker if you consider that the voter turnout was 65,99% as compared to 73,48 % in 2014 – this means that another five million people or more did not turn out to vote. Young people, in the main, account for the disappeared, possibly the outcome of a youth unemployment rate that is riding at 50%. There are roughly three million young people who are unemployed – which matches itself in poverty levels.
  • The overwhelming sentiment for millions of South Africans and the manifestos of all the major political parties highlighted that most South Africans are not satisfied with the status quo, that they yearn for a better and prosperous Soutn Africa for more people rather than less.
  • We are experiencing a crisis of ethics and governance in the South African private sector. Over the past year alone, some of the biggest names in corporate have been embroiled in scandals that brought trusted household brands to their knees. Businesses, large and small are now implicated in the current state capture commission, in ethical violations, uncompetitive behaviours, collusion practices, and the so called “accounting irregularities “. The nation is now turning its eye onto the private sector with the same vigilance as they have done to the public sector.

Why is this important for all of us here tonight, for our families, our businesses and our society at large – I would like to quote our Group Chief Executive, Sim Tshabalala

“.. transformation is a commercial imperative for the Standardbank Group. South Africa’s extremely high level of inequality creates grave risks to the quality of our politics, to the strength of our institutions and to the stability of our society. These worsen South Africa’s business environment and our country risk ratings which, in turn, damage our prospects for faster and more inclusive growth in South Africa and throughout the continent.”

He concludes,

“we must all continue to work hard to transform our economy and our society. Our Constitution binds us to do this; our South African patriotism and our commitment to Africa demand it; and our interest in the profitability of our group and in the well-being of our fellow South Africans, our friends and families compels it.”

We need urgent change, we need to build a more peaceful, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous society.

In the words of James Kouzes and Barry Posner:

Change is the province of leaders. It is the work of leaders to inspire people to do things differently, to struggle against uncertain odds, and to persevere towards a misty image of a better future. Without leadership, there would not be the extraordinary efforts to solve existing problems and realise unimagined opportunities.

South Africa needs all of us as leaders to commit to joint prosperity for all our people -everyone is harmed in the long run if income and asset inequality remains too high. Indeed, the plain fact of the matter is that too much inequality is morally and economically bad.  

You may legitimately ask what you can do, in your personal capacity, in your business, in your community or in broader society as you are just a business person, who pays their taxes, abides by the law and already employs people. My very humble answer would be, we all may not have been able to do something about the June 16 uprisings, we may not have been able to stop apartheid, or did not know its true impact, we may not have known how inequality, poverty and unemployment would increase after democracy, but now we know. We also know how throughout the world, either at the ballot box, or in the streets people are voicing their displeasure with the status quo. Each one of us has an opportunity, indeed a responsibility to do something, as an individual, a business, or as a collective to turn the situation around.

In the words of Robert Kennedy:

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

I hope that each one of you, or your companies, will do much more from tonight, to improve the lot of others, and to ensure that we live like brothers and sisters in the context of shared prosperity. I sincerely hope that your companies and businesses will use some of the best brains we have to develop solutions that will not only enhance your bottom line but will also improve the lot of others. Maybe, just maybe, if we do those things, we as a country will avoid the fate that befell other countries.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is not labels, slogans and insults that will take us forward; it is new ideas, new partnerships and new solutions from a range of stakeholders. In the words of the late Judge Arthur Chaskalson, what is demanded of all South Africans is: “that we commit ourselves completely and wholeheartedly to the transformation that has to take place. This calls for more than pious statements or resolutions at the end of a conference (it means) seeking solutions and not recrimination. Pragmatically this is what we must do; ethically, this is what we are obliged to do, and in good conscience we can do no less.”

If we successfully navigate this difficult path, then we have a hope of making Mandela’s dream society come true for our children and future generations. Should we fail, then we would have no-one else to blame as our country slides back into strife, conflict and racial hatred. These are our stark choices.

South Africans are crying out for leadership, such a leadership would be what Songezo Zibi described as rational, transcendent leadership.” Such leadership is either unburdened by the dogmas of the past or able to manage them effectively.”

It is such leadership that can reach out to others, make principled compromises, build towards a greater future and always strive for broader rather than narrow interests. We have a wonderful window of opportunity as we had in 1994, we have a new President and a new government that faces a Herculean Task – we as the business community could embrace this moment by finding unique and creative ways to partner with the President in building shared prosperity. We have an opportunity to learn from our colleagues in the USA, UK, the Middle East and greater Europe.

The challenges we face are enormous; the path ahead is long and arduous, but as seductive as they may seem, shortcuts are not the answer. Violence and destruction will not yield the desired results; and as assuaging to anger or frustration as racist remarks, posts, tweets or cartoons may be, they will not wipe any race group from our land.

No South African, no matter how influential; no political party, no matter how powerful; no group, no matter how strong; can build our society on its own. To build this society, we will have to draw on the energy, passion, commitment, capabilities and promise of all our people.

Our people may have vastly different experiences, interests, hopes, fears, aspirations and views. Our duty, as leaders, is to build on what they have in common: a deep desire for a better life, a powerful yearning to live in peace and harmony, a fervent hope for a brighter future for their children. Let this be our vision and our rallying cry: We hope for a common future in which more people prosper, rather than fewer.

This journey will be long and hard, it may proceed in fits and starts, it may surprise us with sharp bends, it may contain steep inclines and dangerous obstacles. Whatever we encounter along the way, we must stay the course, together, more united and clearer about the glorious future that beckons.

An old African proverb shows us the way:

If you want to go fast, you go alone

If you want to go far, we go together

May we leave no one behind …. Let us build a better future for our children

Bound together by a common destiny, glued to one another by a common history and marching in step towards the next 25 years, we must seek a shared prosperity.

As we face the next 25 years, let us regain the great promise we held for the world, let us reclaim the status we had among the nations of the world; let us create a nation that all of us can be proud of. May each one of us find their colour in our rainbow, may more of our people find a place at our prosperity table and may all our people see themselves in the picture of the future we are creating.

Our country’s beauty will be enhanced when we share it; its riches will be preserved if more benefit from them and our flag will fly higher when more pay allegiance to it.

South Africa belongs to all who live in it, let us not exclude anyone; let us not leave anyone behind; let us make everyone feel a sense of belonging, pride, love and loyalty.

 

I thank you

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