Business meets politics… meets evil? Not quite

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Lebo Keswa is CEO of Leboswa Investments, Wall2Wall Murals and Bokamoso Consultancy, as well as Executive Director of Pfuneta Energy Solutions, Pfuneta Boutique Hotels, Masimu Holdings and Femme Nova. Lebo was Research Executive at the SABC, running a feasibility study in 14 African countries. Appointed Business Development Manager for Vutha Advertising and Marketing she moved to Saatchi and Saatchi South Africa as Business Development Director, subsequently joining Simeka as Business Development Director, later becoming Executive Director. She received a BA (Journalism and Politics) at Rhodes University and is currently with GIBS on the programme for Women Entrepreneurs. Lebo has been Chairperson of the Patrick Ace Ntsoelengoe Foundation (PANF), Managing Director/Editor for Blink Magazine and reporter for the South African Press Association

There is no evil in the link between business and politics. The real issue is in how these links are managed. If we are honest with ourselves, and each other, greater transparency can be achieved in highlighting the links – which can be beneficial to all.

If we are truthful, we will agree that the lead article of the City Press last week: ‘Cabinet Inc.’, coupled with an article purporting to expose President Zuma’s relatives’ business interests, tries to create an impression that it is evil or unethical for politicians to be involved in business. The truth of the matter is that there are very few politicians who are not somehow involved in business. The link between business and politics is the reality of our body politic and in fact, in other jurisdictions, is accepted as a reality linked to how politics survives.

Because of the stigma that is often attached to having business interests in our country, corruption festers, with many politicians hiding their business interests through proxies and relatives or even friends. Those that are honest enough to declare get prejudiced like the City Press has done by drawing what they call the ‘business family tree’ of Zuma’s relatives. So what is going on here?

Members of the Cabinet have three months after being appointed to declare their business interests. So splashing those interests in the front page is prejudicial and gives an impression that they intend not to disclose such or hiding these interests. Parliament also does not require the MPs to disinvest in such interests; it only requires them to disclose these as a way of discouraging business interests.

Nowhere in our Constitution are members of the executive excluded from participating in economic opportunities. The call by COSATU for ministers to choose between business and public service may sound morally sound and politically correct, but it smacks of the highest level of opportunism. COSATU institutionally has invested hugely in business with various investment arms all over the place. Recently it was even alleged that COSATU has shares in the very e-toll companies that they are marching against. I always therefore take with a pinch of salt some of these unrealistic calls for politicians to be totally divorced from business. I am not even talking about the personal interests through wives and girlfriends that some of these union leaders have. Is it not better if we know who is who in the zoo rather than if we pretend politicians are not involved in business?

Being involved in business where you have direct control of tenders; in other words, doing business with yourself or wives or friends, is to be frowned upon. But why should Thandi Modise not own a farm, where she can give jobs to a few people? She is not a minister of agriculture, nor does her acquisition of the farm have anything to do with any influence she should wield. In any event, if we know as we do now that she is an entrepreneur in the farming industry, will that not help us keep check of any undue influence she may have as far as any services she may be entitled to where the state is concerned?

I prefer this route of honesty rather that an ill-conceived moral route that seeks to pretend that politics and economics are separate. The mechanism of blind trusts that is often bandied about is cold comfort. The reality of some kind of business benefit remains. It is therefore an ineffective mechanism to separate politics from business. We all know how trusts in particular are abused by people, to avoid the piercing of what is referred to in law as the corporate veil. In other words, people have managed the art of hiding behind trusts to hide money and evade tax and all kinds of things. I would say let us be honest about our interests and then manage the conflict of interests in the course of processes of procurement.

In business, people who sit on boards that may make decisions that may benefit them unduly recuse themselves when the subject matter in question is discussed. Ministers who may benefit from certain decisions of their departments or various tender boards must learn how to handle such conflicts of interest and actively learn to recuse themselves or divert their interests to where this may prove impossible to have the desired effect. We have to grow up enough as a society to realise that political office in particular is not always as influential as it is made out to be, nor is it a permanent occupation. Ministers will soon be out in the cold after this term and must still earn a living.

Some of the ministers are so young that it is clear that they will not always be in politics. In our context, many of the ministers who have served a few terms never had a career before 1994 and may have nothing to go back to once their political careers have run their course.

The drawing of the Zuma tree leaves much to be desired. Is it now being implied that being related to Zuma must disadvantage you in business? The reality is that many of those mentioned battle in business because of the constant stigma of being related to the first citizen. Closer examination of these interests may in fact reveal that they pre-date the Zuma presidency. So is it expected of this industrious family to crawl under the table because Zuma is now president? Are they expected to apologise for their business interests? It is interesting that the same noise was not heard about the relatives of Mbeki - whose brother was a huge business mogul - and Mandela, whose children are in all kinds of business deals. Or are we back to the obsession of the media with anything Zuma? DM

* Lebo Keswa is a Marketing Executive and businesswoman based in Gauteng. She writes in her personal capacity. Follow her on Twitter: @lebokeswa

By Lebo Keswa

Source: Daily Maverick