JOHANNESBURG – While former President Nelson Mandela will be remembered for his role in leading South Africa to democracy, he also played an important part in putting local businesses on the world stage.
The late statesman (95) passed away on Thursday evening at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg. He was hospitalised for a recurring lung infection earlier in the year, but was discharged early in September and treated at home.
Dr Lyal White, director of the Centre for Dynamic Markets at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs), says Mandela’s main contribution was symbolic – enforcing confidence in the South African economy.
White says Madiba also encouraged South African businesses from early on to invest back into society through development.
He says although it is disputed to some degree, Mandela championed the presence of local businesses in Africa and improved the image of those businesses across the continent. He laid the foundation for South African businesses to start looking for business opportunities on the African continent, he says.
Madiba was also the first non-South American head of state to be invited to the Mercosur Summit and thereby helped certain businesses to get a foothold in Latin America for example, he says.
“And then obviously that was reciprocated when African leaders invited the likes of Lula da Silva, the former president of Brazil, onto the African continent,” he says.
“Ultimately I suppose this all falls under the one umbrella of how he helped liberalise South Africa,” he says.
South Africa has been able to establish itself as a country that can punch above its weight, he says.
White says South Africa is a relatively small economy in global and even emerging terms, yet the country has been included in forums like the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India and China), despite its smaller size.
“The world sees us as a country and an economy that can punch above our weight and it was because of Madiba that we are able to punch above our weight,” he says.
Madiba made it very clear that we are able to do whatever we really put our minds to in business, he says.
En route to the first democratic election
Brand Pretorius, former chief executive officer of motor retail group McCarthy and author of 'In the driving seat' – lessons in leadership, adds that Mandela was a symbol of hope for the business sector during the very difficult period preceding the first democratic election, because he was accessible.
There were a lot of formal and more importantly informal communication between Mandela himself and the business sector, he says.
“Certainly at the time it was clear that he wanted to engage the business sector as a partner and because of his inclusive attitude he inspired confidence. The business sector therefore willingly played a very constructive role in the run-up to the first democratic election because it was clear that Mr Mandela had the interests of the country at heart, he wasn’t just serving narrow political interests,” he says.
Pretorius says Mandela behaved in a statesmen-like manner and put the interest of South Africa first, rather than just serving an ANC political agenda.
He also opened the door for business to engage the ANC’s executive committee in terms of economic policy, he says.
Weekend sessions that took place between ANC executive committee members and business leaders that was facilitated by Dr Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, also played an important role in boosting confidence and in convincing the business sector that they had to join hands willingly, Pretorius says.
“And then during his tenure as president he continued to play that role – he wasn’t distant, he was very accessible and he undoubtedly played an important role in facilitating discussions about long-term direction and policy.”
Pretorius says although Mandela’s main agenda was reconciliation, he definitely realised that economic prosperity was a critical success factor for the country and that business had an important role to play.
“What was interesting during that time was that the people in government – the policy-makers, the director-generals – followed his example. There was a lot of trust and good co-operation.”
Business and beyond
Masego Loyiso Lehihi, senior manager: communications at Business Unity South Africa (Busa), emphasises that Madiba has made a great contribution to society as a whole – not only in business.
“However, the values he espouses – that of human rights, having an inclusive society – have become the very foundation that business under the umbrella body of Busa remains inspired by and certainly aspires to achieve.”
Lehihi says Madiba’s legacy talks to Busa’s mission, to ensure that organised business plays a constructive role within the country’s economic growth, development and economic transformation goals, to achieve an environment in which businesses of all sizes and in all sectors can thrive, expand and be competitive both nationally and internationally and to have an inclusive society that all can meaningfully participate in.
Business is always pushing for and is working hard to alleviate the triple evil in our society – that of poverty, unemployment and deepening inequality, Lehihi says.
“The work we are doing as business, government and labour in the National Development Plan encapsulate the very spirit of Madiba’s legacy and iconic leadership, that of working together, for the greater good of humanity.”