Corporate SA needs higher moral standards

Eskom is in a crisis after being run down by mismanagement and corruption. /Bloomberg via Getty Images / Waldo Swiegers
Eskom is in a crisis after being run down by mismanagement and corruption. /Bloomberg via Getty Images / Waldo Swiegers

SA's government has the difficult task of reviving a stagnating economy.

Part of this involves rescuing critical state-owned enterprises (SOEs) - especially Eskom - that have been run down by mismanagement.

So far, bringing in the private sector has been punted by Treasury, the ANC NEC (national executive committee) and some experts on governance, as integral to addressing the crisis in SOEs.

It has also been suggested that using expertise from civil society and the private sector could assist in turning municipalities and other areas of government failure around.

This view is underpinned by the assumption that efficiency, accountability and good governance are inherent in the private sector. There is often an uncritical acceptance that the private sector - corporates, investors, equity partners and whatever other name you want to give them - is good, and always better than the state.

Exposed instances of impropriety are taken to be exceptions rather than an entrenched culture of playing by different rules.

Thus, the view is that if the private sector is given an opportunity to take the prerogative in the running of SOEs and is allowed to have greater influence in matters of governance, the outcomes are likely to favour the public interest.

This notion invariably accepts the position that the country's problems emanate solely from the political system.

The problem is framed in different ways as policy incoherence and uncertainty, or of a lack of capacity, or of a lack of political will, or of mismanagement and maladministration, or of corruption, or of failures of cadre deployment, or a combination of all these.

The difference is in emphasis, but the point is that the onus is only on the state, the public servants who run the public administration and the government that leads them to make serious changes.

Huge responsibility devolves on these individuals and they should be held to account for the failures and lags in service delivery that hamstrings the economy.

That said, it is also necessary to scrutinise the role and contribution of the private sector to society's problems.

The political system and economic system exist in a complementary relationship. They are interdependent, with each relying on the other. The success and failure of one cannot be viewed in isolation.

In 2012, Sampie Terreblanche reflected on this point in his book Lost in Transformation: South Africa's Search for a New Future since 1986: "We replaced the immoral and inhumane system of apartheid with an immoral and inhumane politico-economic system. The political 'side' of the new dual system is pathetically inefficient and corrupt, while the economic 'side' is too powerful, too self-centered and too globally orientated."

The government which has been dominated by the ANC at national, provincial and local levels since 1994 is now being compelled to confront its culpability in the country's stalled transformation.

It has been demonstrated across the board that successive administrations since the transition to democracy, even some of those municipalities and province run by the opposition, have things to answer for.

In the same vein, as the biggest beneficiaries of the transition, corporates have to take a good hard look at themselves. Terreblanche's analysis fittingly describes the culpability of the private sector.

"The post-apartheid period is in many aspects as immoral and as inhumane as the apartheid period - if not more so. The white elite and the white corporations were given the privilege of transferring all the wealth they had accumulated . - and also the part that was accumulated undeservedly - almost intact to the new South Africa.

"For the new black corporations, lucrative opportunities have been created since 1994 to accumulate considerable wealth, and part of their wealth was also undeservedly accumulated."

Corporates have participated - as consultants, as winners of tenders, as parties to public-private partnerships - to the collapse and inefficiencies of the state by a lack of conscientiousness and empathy for the ordinary citizens who rely on the services and infrastructure they are contracted to provide.

Given the role envisaged for the private sector in rescuing SOEs, now more than ever before corporate SA needs to be held to higher moral and ethical standards.

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