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Thu Oct 30 17:10:02 SAST 2014

Business no angel either

S'Thembiso Msomi | 06 February, 2013 00:19

Big business has been getting a lot of stick from the governing party lately. And the natural reaction of most commentators has been to rally behind the private sector and accuse the ANC and the government of bullying their critics.

In many instances, the accusations levelled against Luthuli House are justified. The party does tend to be high-handed in its reaction to criticism - especially if such criticism is dished out by established businesses.

It is as if, at times, party leaders are uncertain about whether to treat capital as a partner or foe.

This reminds one of a debate that raged in the ANC ahead of its 2007 national policy conference:

If the party was engaged in a "National Democratic Revolution" and South Africans were the "motive forces" advancing its goal of a non-racial democracy, who was the enemy? Who stood to lose from this "revolution" and was therefore opposed to it? There can be no real revolution without enemies, isn't it?

After much scratching of heads and ideological sparring between the political tendencies that make up the ANC's "broad church", party intellectuals came up with what they thought was a neat solution.

Monopoly capital, they declared, was the enemy of the National Democratic Revolution.

But that formulation soon fell flat when some of the party's thinkers - most of whom were deployed in the government at the time - pointed to the absurdity of the ruling party labelling big business its enemy while, at the same time, it was urging the same "enemy" to make the "revolution" a success by investing in the economy.

The political rhetoric of certain top leaders in the ANC suggests that the matter has not been fully resolved.

But, the ANC's schizophrenic relationship with business aside, there is clearly an urgent need to interrogate big capital's role in this country's economic development.

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe set tongues wagging at the weekend, during a closed ANC lekgotla, when he accused business of being "reluctant to contribute" to the fight against high unemployment.

Though it might be easy to dismiss Mantashe's utterances as the rantings of a politician who is struggling to decide whether he is a militant trade unionist or a responsible chief executive of the ANC, we should be asking tough questions of our business community.

With high unemployment the single most critical crisis facing our country today, are we satisfied that big business is doing enough to help create jobs?

What of the battle against corruption? Much attention is being paid - and rightly so - to high levels of corruption in the government and to the troubling phenomenon of "tenderpreneurs" who are milking the state in the name of black economic empowerment.

But we are turning a blind eye to the nefarious activities of the real godfathers of tenderpreneurship - the big companies that have made super-profits by over-charging the state on massive infrastructure programmes that are aimed at stimulating economic growth and job creation.

City Press and Rapport this weekend reported that senior executives at top construction companies have admitted to swindling the state by "illegally fixing" major contracts worth billions of rands.

These included critical projects such as the construction of 2010 soccer World Cup stadiums.

According to the reports, the price-fixing racket has been going on for decades and has only come to light because of an investigation by the Hawks and the Competition Commission.

If the claims prove to be true, they are likely to do serious harm to the image of the construction sector and big business in general.

Projects such as the building of World Cup stadiums, the Coega development in Eastern Cape and the multibillion-rand Gautrain were aimed largely at creating sustainable jobs.

If the allegations are true, these big companies instead saw an opportunity to rob the public by inflating prices and rigging tender processes.

Organised business must categorically reject such practices and the government should launch a full and independent inquiry into price inflation, collusion and price fixing in the private sector, particularly among companies that do business with the Public Works Department.

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