Prominent businessman Sipho Pityana delivered the opening keynote address at the 14th annual Trialogue Business in Society Virtual Conference. The outgoing president of Business Unity South Africa said that closing the trust gap between business and society will only be possible when the private sector addresses the full spectrum of challenges we face in our country.

“As we rightly show enthusiasm for the climate-change agenda, 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 the many to the indignity of poverty and homelessness,” he told delegates. As we emerge from the “ravaging era of state capture”, business has had to assert its commitment to ethical leadership and an inclusive growth agenda that does not reproduce the country’s historical patterns of inequity.

“Importantly, we had to ensure that the principles of collaboration with our social partners were more than just about securing the best deal for business, but to 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,” he said.

“Our priorities, as a confederation of business organisations that represent over 90% of organised business in South Africa, had to align with those of society at large. Through the annual Business Economic Indaba, we let the nation know that business not only had confidence in the future of our country, but importantly proceeded to proffer solutions, which included economic structural reforms. This at the same time as we agreed to short-term interventions to address seemingly intractable challenges of unemployment through a pact concluded at NEDLAC’s job summit of 2018.”

Bolstering economies of the future
Pityana pointed out that business has had to play its part in driving the green economy and the fourth industrial revolution – the economies of the future. “The newly developed integrated resource plan places much greater emphasis on renewable energy and envisages a just transition away from fossil fuels. Business has to bring its tremendous resources to bear to drive the climate change agenda,” he said.
A more realistic approach to addressing the country’s energy challenges has been welcome, along with encouraging signs of a more pragmatic approach to our state-owned enterprises. These policy changes have had to “be squeezed out of government”, but change is coming, Pityana explained, and with it the prospect of policy certainty and economic stimulation.

Meaningful social compacts for inclusive growth

He further drew attention to the role that businesses are increasingly expected to play in society, particularly as research from the Edelman Trust Barometer shows that companies are now the most trusted institutions, ahead of non-profit organisations, government and the media.

While he highlighted the many pandemic initiatives that have allowed business to be viewed as a “trustworthy and reliable partner beyond profiteering”, such as working together with government to ensure the rollout and local manufacture of vaccines, he also warned that the private sector needs to drive an agenda for inclusive growth founded on meaningful social compacts. “The pandemic and economic whirlwinds have created forced marriages between social partners, but we need to convert these into happy marriages where partners enjoy working together for the betterment of our country and continent,” he asserted.

This will involve strengthening the trust between labour, government, business and society, as well as drawing our neglected small- and medium-sized enterprises into supply chains. “There can be no inclusive economic agenda without small and medium enterprises as an answer to the challenge,” he said.

His vision for the future includes partnering and sharing resources with other African countries, since “we don’t have adequate infrastructure to deal with these things in isolation”. He suggested that Africa needs to craft its own agenda when it comes to stakeholder capitalism, with business making sure that it lifts others up when pursuing opportunities. He said that enterprises cannot thrive when education and health systems, as well as local government, do not function properly. “It’s inconceivable that we can succeed in a sea of failing and collapsing societies. We must be part of the solution,” he said.

He concluded by saying: “We need to take our full citizenship as business – which is not just about enabling enterprises to make a profit but ensuring that we help societies to work successfully. It cannot be that we sleep peacefully at night with a large number of young people desperate for jobs.”

Written by Fiona Zerbst

Image: Screen capture of Conference chairperson, Gugulethu Mfuphi and Sipho Pityana