Business Unity SA is driving an agenda for inclusive growth, founded on meaningful social compacts

Three years ago I assumed the role of president of Business Unity SA (Busa). I served my term at a time that required clarity of purpose. We were emerging from the ravaging era of state capture, when some in business were knee-deep in corrupt and unethical practices. There was an air of expectation that, under the leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa, with the rhetoric of the “new dawn”, a nation committed to honouring its historic mission of building an equitable society was back on course.

As the business community we had to assert our commitment to ethical leadership and an inclusive growth agenda that does not reproduce the country’s historical patterns of inequalities. Importantly, we had to ensure the principles of collaboration with our social partners were more than just about securing the best deal for business but would also improve the prospects for sustainable, transformative development. We had to earn a place as a credible voice at the table, even when others sometimes disagreed with our perspective.

Our priorities as a confederation of business organisations that represent more than 90% of organised business in SA, and as a leader on the continent, had to align with those of society at large. We let the nation know that business not only had confidence in the future of our country but could also proffer solutions that included economic and structural reforms. Though at times it has seemed that policy changes have had to be squeezed out of the government, the fact remains that change is happening, and with it the prospect of policy certainty and economic stimulation.

We come from a place where trust levels between business and labour, and to some extent business and government, were low. We have had to work hard to close this persistent deficit, in the interests of our country. Some of the agreements we entered into go a long way towards emphasising our embrace of the issues affecting the marginalised. Notwithstanding a barrage of criticism, we brought business to the party in support of the national minimum wage. We are a business leadership forum that is not about a chase to the bottom. We believe not only in the dignity of work, but in work for all.

When I look at this and many other features of my tenure at the helm of Busa and listen to the articulation of the notion of stakeholder capitalism by Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, our journey has had all the hallmarks of the expected role of business in society. Yet we still have a long way to go. As we rightly show tremendous enthusiasm for the agenda to counter climate change, we must ask ourselves whether we can be trusted with the environment when we show indifference to the daily pain of race and gender discrimination and the condemnation of many to the indignity of poverty and homelessness. Only when we honestly address these issues will we truly close the trust deficit between business and society.

Affirmative interventions

We must reflect on the affirmative interventions by many in business. Our members were galvanised into action. Mining companies were out offering their health infrastructure for public use. Many ran public education programmes and employee support initiatives. They distributed sanitiser, water tanks, masks and other essentials to communities. Interim relief measures were introduced by banks and companies for those with rent obligations.

It was on the back of this sense of citizenship that Busa, with the Black Business Council, established Business for SA (B4SA), to co-ordinate our three-pronged response focusing on pharmaceutical, behavioural and socioeconomic interventions. We tabled a detailed long-term recovery plan for the country after the pandemic. This platform was established to enable a nimble, agile and expeditious business response, free from the mandate-driven processes of organised business. Through these processes business has asserted itself as a trustworthy and reliable partner beyond profiteering.

Today, business has partnered with the government to enable the procurement and local manufacturing of vaccines. I am alluding to this to emphasise the point that, during the three years of my tenure, we repositioned Busa to afford business the status of a partner in search of sustainable solutions to the country’s and continent’s challenges. We have graduated our relationship with society beyond the transactional to one of an independent but reliable partner. We believe the success of our country and people will enable businesses to thrive sustainably. It is for this reason that we are driving an agenda for inclusive growth, founded on meaningful social compacts.

The real issue is not what we have achieved, it is how we ensure that we do more. We need to maintain the partnerships that have helped us navigate the economic and pandemic whirlwinds. We need to increasingly strengthen the chain of trust that has been built between labour, government, business and society. We need to continue our focus on inclusive economic growth, particularly given the devastating unemployment statistics that present the bleakest of futures for young South Africans. And we have to continue with the macroeconomic reforms that are gradually providing policy certainty for local and foreign investors.

In some ways, the combination of economic and pandemic whirlwinds created forced marriages between us as social partners. We need to convert these forced marriages into happy ones, where partners are glad and enjoy working together for the betterment of our country and the continent. It is inconceivable that we can succeed in a sea of failing and collapsing societies. We must be part of the solution. We need to take up our full citizenship as business, which is not just about enabling enterprises to make a profit, but also about ensuring that we help societies work successfully. It cannot be that we sleep peacefully at night with a large number of young people desperate for jobs.

• Pityana, the outgoing president of Business Unity SA, chairs Izingwe Capital. This is an abridged version of a speech at the Trialogue Business in Society Conference 2021, which was presented in partnership with Absa, Momentum Metropolitan Foundation, MTN SA Foundation, Rand Water Foundation, Vodacom, Capitec Foundation, Sibanye-Stillwater and Volkswagen SA.

This article was first published on Business Live