Jnews is about news!

A snake in the room


You can also listen to this podcast on iono.fm here.

On this latest episode of the FixSA podcast, Songezo Zibi says in a year when the ANC has its elective conference there is very little governing that goes on.

He believes to fix South Africa a fundamental redesign of politics is needed, and it is high time the top fifty or so business leaders got into a room to force the pace.

Below is the full transcript of Jeremy Maggs’s interview with Zibi.

JEREMY MAGGS: Not too long ago, our guest wrote an essay that said the crisis that South Africa is facing is “a golden opportunity to define the country’s progressive politics anew, ditching the old ideological dogmas whose preoccupation is contestation to defeat the other at the expense of progress on issues where there is broad social agreement”.

It looks like he might have some good ideas on how to repair things.

Welcome to the Moneyweb podcast Fix SA. My name is Jeremy Maggs. Just to remind you, in the coming weeks our guests will be asked how we can make things better. How do we improve matters? How in the shortest space of time can we become a competitive and a successful nation? That’s what everybody wants.

Songezo Zibi has more than 20 years of corporate experience, during which time he has been a communications and corporate affairs professional. Prior to joining Absa as head of communications, he was the editor of Business Day, and [is] now the convener, the chief cook and bottlewasher, I think, of a think tank – he’ll correct me if I’m wrong – of a concept called the Rivonia Circle. So how would he fix South Africa?

Let me get that right, first of all, Songeza. Are you comfortable with the words ‘think tank’?

SONGEZO ZIBI: Oh, yes, I am. We’re a think tank with frills, bells and whistles because we are different, because we work on solutions across a number of areas. So I’m very happy to be here to talk about how to Fix SA.

JEREMY MAGGS: I’m looking forward to talking about some of those solutions. But just a quick criticism, if I may. I spoke to a couple of people whom I told I was going to be talking to you, and they said, ‘Oh, not another talk shop!’ Is that what the Rivonia Circle is about? Is it a bunch of smart guys getting around a table and talking, or is it more than that?

SONGEZO ZIBI: No, it’s absolutely more than that. One of the decisions we took early on is that we are going to be solutions-focused. But people have got to understand that in order to arrive at practical, workable solutions you’ve got to do quite a bit of talking. In our case we’ve been doing a lot of listening, actually, rather than talking, which I’m quite happy to share as we have this conversation, listening very intently, so that when we do decide to produce ideas and take action they have as much consensus and credibility as possible, because that’s what we’ve [not] had in South Africa.

We’ve [South Africa] had a lack of credibility right across the board. As a result, the things we’ve tried to do have been hotly contested and just never get anywhere.

JEREMY MAGGS: You can listen for as long as you want, you can try and reach that consensus, but you will agree with me that that clock is ticking, [and] that at some point you’ve got to put up your hand and say: ‘Well, here’s the blueprint. We have reached the consensus, now we are going to spring into action.’ What would the springing into action be?

SONGEZO ZIBI: We are actually in that phase of action, Jeremy, at this moment. We’ve just introduced something called the Rise Campaign. South Africans have to recognise what the fundamental problem is. I know people like to talk about technical solutions and this policy option and an enabled state and that sort of thing. We’ve got to be honest with ourselves.

The politics is South Africa’s biggest obstacle in terms of the economy, in terms of social progress, in terms of just about anything that we want to do – including the global competitiveness of the country.

We have the wrong people at the helm. People in business – and I come from business, Jeremy – have chosen to have this conversation only in private. But honestly, they’re dealing and hanging their hopes on people they wouldn’t hire as middle managers in their companies. And they know it.

So we’ve got to fix the politics, no dilly-dallying and beating around the bush. Therefore, the Rise Campaign has got, as one of its core tenets, making sure that we get that political change from 2024 onward. And then the kind of things people complain about and say government is not doing etc, etc –  ‘we’ve made thousands of pages of submissions to government and nothing gets done’ – then they can get done because you need a different calibre of politician.

JEREMY MAGGS: So are you a force of influence at the moment, or at some point do you put up your hand and say ‘we’re a party’ as well?

SONGEZO ZIBI: Where we are now is that the Rivonia Circle is going to continue being the non-profit that it is. The Rise Campaign is going to be an animal of its own that becomes a political movement that contests elections and so on, while the Rivonia Circle continues on its path. What the Rivonia Circle has done, in essence, is laying the basis through its work for a cohesive political alternative that can contest elections.

JEREMY MAGGS: Lots of organisations such as yours have risen before, and I like the name ‘Rise’, but they’ve also fallen. What makes you different, do you think? What’s going to give you the traction that you so desire?

SONGEZO ZIBI: Jeremy, let me give you an example, and I’m going to criticise my former colleagues in business or the elites – and I count myself as one of the elites in South Africa. The manner in which we have thought and framed solutions to some of the problems is outmoded and it tends to follow what the people at the Union Buildings follow.

Now, if you look at the unemployment and economic problem, Jeremy, 70% of the people without jobs in South Africa do not have matric.

I am not sure what Ebrahim Patel with large industrial society dreams that he wants to do, that business flocks continuously to speak to about beneficiation and all of these kind of things. What does that solve for the person who actually can’t get the most basic job because they didn’t finish matric?

The Department of Education was in parliament in October, and said the school dropout rate is – wait for it – 48% or 52%. If you can’t solve that problem, you are then not going to be able to be competitive, to have the kind of impact that you want to have. And therefore, and here’s where the framing needs to change, we can’t have people in business and other sectors only meeting with Ebrahim Patel. Surely, surely in the conversation there needs to be Blade Nzimande or the minister of higher education and the minister of basic education.

Business has got to get into the habit of interrogating how we’ve structured our skills development programme vis-à-vis the basic education area. They don’t want to go there because it doesn’t have anything to do with business. And those are the kind of solutions, a different framing of solutions, that we are coming up with.

JEREMY MAGGS: It’s also much easier and perhaps more palatable to sip the big-vision Kool-Aid than go and get dirty and discuss curricular and classrooms and basic services, I guess.

SONGEZO ZIBI: Jeremy, we must frame questions as simply as we can. Why are so many kids not completing school, and what happens to those kids? Are we ever going to create enough jobs for them? Alternately then, if we accept that we don’t want to do anything about that problem, what kind of rudimentary early 20th century economy do we want to build so that we can have somewhere where they can work, and how competitive or uncompetitive would that economy be?

We don’t want to frame questions in that way because it’s too difficult. It takes us to the realm of politics. Of course it must.

JEREMY MAGGS: I want to reference in a moment your call to action then, as far as business is concerned. But I have framed our conversation on the essay that you wrote that I featured in my introduction. You said, in part, we are truly on our own, we must take very clear steps to defend the Republic between now and 2024. What do you mean when you say ‘we are truly on our own’? Songezo Zibi, that’s terrifying. How do we find ourselves on our own?

SONGEZO ZIBI: We should be terrified. We are sitting with a snake in the room; we are pretending that it’s not there. Jeremy, you’ve covered economy and politics for a very long time. We know [that] in a year when the ANC has got its elective conference there is very little governing that goes on. The people are not in the office at all. They’re out there campaigning. We know this, as a matter of fact.

Additionally, Jeremy, many of them are embroiled in scandal. They are either appearing at commissions, they’re under investigation, they’re having criminal charges against them and so on, and the primary preoccupation politically for them is escaping accountability.

We know this. Let’s not pretend this is not the case. We see them on TV and in newspapers and so on every day.

Additionally, Jeremy, we now have, if we look at just the last few weeks, what [have] been the main topics of discussion in the top decision-making structure of the ANC – the step-aside rule, it’s been Phala Phala and so on. Come on, Jeremy, if you are a shareholder and you are watching a company spend its time fighting between executives and the board…

JEREMY MAGGS: With little attention being paid to Stage 4 blackouts.

SONGEZO ZIBI: Right, right. So we must call problems by their real name. The country is on autopilot. It is not wise to hope that President Cyril Ramaphosa is the one messiah who’s going to turn things around. It’s clear that he’s not.

There is no business that has got hope as its strategy. It makes no sense to me, and yet this is where we find ourselves.

Therefore, in that context I really must challenge everybody who’s listening to this podcast to question the role they’ve played in pretending that problems are not as serious as they are, either implicitly or explicitly – even if they don’t say so. What’s clear through our collective inaction is that we don’t think things are serious enough. But it’s not just electricity, Jeremy, it’s water, right? It’s Transnet choking the economy. Businesses is complaining all the time.

Read:
Lawmakers quash Phala Phala scandal report, boosting Ramaphosa
Bank stocks took a hammering from Phala Phala saga
What investors, analysts say about Ramaphosa game farm scandal report

JEREMY MAGGS: The list is endless.

SONGEZO ZIBI: The list is endless.

JEREMY MAGGS: And overarching all of this, you go on to say we have to talk about having to accept political violence. Let me say that again: we have to talk about accepting political violence. Is it your opinion that we are beyond any kind of solution as far as that’s concerned? You go on to say we are run by criminal gangs. I mean, at that point is it too late to pull things back?

SONGEZO ZIBI: No, it’s not too late. It all depends. We’ll talk, Jeremy, about why I’m saying this is a golden opportunity, by the way, because a crisis depends on what we make of it. It can be a huge opportunity for transformative action, but you’ve got to be brave.

JEREMY MAGGS: But there’s a fine line between crisis and catastrophe.

SONGEZO ZIBI: You’ve got to be bold, of course. But let me talk about the political violence. Jeremy, ANC councillors and other people within the ANC have been killed – in KZN mostly, but also in the Eastern Cape where I was born and where I considered [that] my home. So in other words, within the context of the ANC itself these guys are not afraid to take each other out when they feel the one is threatening the other or threatening their interests.

We face a situation in 2024 when the ANC is very likely to get less than 50%. In terms of our own polling it will be lucky to get 41% or 42%.

JEREMY MAGGS: And there’s inherent danger in those numbers.

SONGEZO ZIBI: There’s inherent [danger]. If these guys kill each other, Jeremy, come on, what about the people who are outside of that organisation? Do we think that they’re going to say, ‘Oh, this party or this person who’s threatening my interest is not in the ANC; I will let them do whatever they want’.

That’s Utopia. We need to stop choosing to be naïve about these things, because Abahlali baseMjondolo have been killed. For many years their leadership in KZN and auditors, who have found malfeasance and so on, have been killed over time. So political violence beyond the ecosystem of the ANC is a very definite possibility.

Read:
Pressure groups offer the best hope for South Africa’s democracy
South African shack-dwellers’ movement fights for urban land reform
South Africa remains a nation of insiders and outsiders…

JEREMY MAGGS: So, Songezo Zibi, if you’re saying then that the biggest problem we’re facing – and you said it earlier – is politics, why are we unable to come together as a nation and fix it? Is the divide of cooperation now too wide for any form of collegiality?

SONGEZO ZIBI: There are few reasons, Jeremy. The first is that there has been an acceptance that the ANC is the convener of different sectors of society, whether it is wearing its government hat or it is wearing its party-political hat, because it has been the centre of what is called ‘the progressive movement’. And so we all agree to be convened by ANC ministers, by the president and so on.

But Jeremy, this is a 1987 movement. In 1987 or 1985 business in South Africa, which was exclusively white in terms of the power structure, took a decision to say the National Party and PW Botha are not the way to the future. We need to find other South Africans who want –

JEREMY MAGGS: They got onto an aeroplane, didn’t they?

SONGEZO ZIBI: Got onto an airplane and went to see the ANC in exile and others. What is today’s version of that action? It takes initiative, Jeremy, it takes bravery. It takes boldness to say the country is way too important than my concerns about what the powers that be – whose tenure is temporary and will soon end – are going to try and do to me.

JEREMY MAGGS: You go on to say, Songezo Zibi, that South Africa needs to sign a moral contract.

SONGEZO ZIBI: Of course.

JEREMY MAGGS: What is that?

SONGEZO ZIBI: One of the things I say in the same piece, Jeremy, is that we need to define what binds us together. In my view what binds us together are the values of our Constitution – not just the statutes, the values of our Constitution.

JEREMY MAGGS: Please don’t use the word ‘resilience’, because we’re getting very tired of that word ‘resilience’.

SONGEZO ZIBI: You know, being tough can be a bad thing because it means you tolerate a lot of nonsense, and I don’t agree with that. So basically we believe that the South African Constitution is social-democratic in nature. What does that mean? What are the values of social democracy? They are freedom, they are equality, they are justice, they are solidarity. And I think you can add a fifth one in the South African context, especially in light of our recent history. You say integrity.

Here’s a question. Can we build a consensus around these values? Could we right across party political lines and business interests and so on? I think if we did we might take all of these and call them ubuntu as well, because they resonate with some.

JEREMY MAGGS: And your contention is that there is that willing majority to do that?

SONGEZO ZIBI: Of course there is.

JEREMY MAGGS: What are they afraid of?

SONGEZO ZIBI: Here’s the thing, Jeremy. As somebody who spent the last year in all sorts of places from Camps Bay to Qumbu in the Eastern Cape and so on, the people I found are willing to move tomorrow to drive political change.

JEREMY MAGGS: But why aren’t they doing so?

SONGEZO ZIBI: Hang on, hang on. The people in the villages, in the townships and the semi-urban areas, those guys don’t wait. They want to move. Here’s what people say. They say: ‘How are you going to succeed, you?’ Back there they say, ‘What are we doing tomorrow?’ That’s the difference.

And if you accept that in any society the elites move the cheese, you’ve got a disconnection between people who don’t want to take responsibility and say, ‘What are you as Songezo going to do?’ and millions who say, ‘What are we going to do?’

So here’s what we have done at the social compact……16:16 because what you then end up with, you’re going to end up with the masses who want a certain agenda and Johnnies-come-lately who are the elites, who thought it was just a Songezo thing where you need to drive this. And that’s our problem.

That’s why we are starting at the level of values, because all of us need to make a choice about whether those values represent who we think we are.

JEREMY MAGGS: What then is the formula for coalescing, then, those two very disparate groups who have such diverse agendas?

SONGEZO ZIBI: Let me share with you what we have actually been doing. We haven’t just been talking to individual organisations in villages and people and individuals and so on. We’ve also been very deliberate in speaking to business-interest groups at a local level and at a regional level. And saying that you –

JEREMY MAGGS: These are small chambers of commerce, that kind of thing?

SONGEZO ZIBI: I will come to the wealthy people as well, and the companies. We can talk about that because I do have some views that people don’t like, but we must have the conversation.

So those guys are the guys who used to invite the ANC into their space and platform them. They want a different conversation now. That’s how we are able to get into that conversation because they don’t have the deep pockets to cushion themselves from load shedding and water and these kinds of thing and [for] buying a diesel generator.

JEREMY MAGGS: To your point, they’re on their own.

SONGEZO ZIBI: They’re on their own, so they want to move, right? The guys who are able to spend an extra R3 million here and R5 million to airfreight things while Transnet is falling apart, still say, ‘Ah, I hope we get a better leader of the ANC’. That’s the difference.

So that’s what we’ve also recognised, and we must be honest, Jeremy, why this 1987 moment is not being captured in the way that we could in 1987 or business could. You had a super-concentrated economy back then. The owners of the assets and the wealth also happened to be the people who were largely running those assets, the ……18:18 high miles …… and those kind of people. That’s a fact.

The South African economy has modernised and deconcentrated, and therefore what you end up with are highly paid managers of other people’s assets. That’s what executives of JSE-listed companies are and therefore they are naturally constrained. They can’t take arbitrary decisions to say, politically we are going to go this way, because shareholders are complex, they’re from here and overseas and that kind of thing.

Unfortunately this reality of modern business has also meant that you have a bunch of people who control a huge source of the economy, who are infinitely indecisive and unclear in terms of where they think the country needs to be, because they’re trying to manage multiple interests. That’s the reality of being an executive in a listed company, and I’ve worked in listed companies all my life. That’s a fact.

So you can’t ask – and I’ll mention Sim [Tshabalala] because we know each other – you can’t ask Sim to make a definite statement about politics because his chairman is going to phone him and ask him, ‘What are you talking about?’ It’s just different.

JEREMY MAGGS: Just for context, you’re talking about Sim Tshabalala, the first guest on the Fix SA podcast.

SONGEZO ZIBI: Yes. I’m talking about Sim. That’s a reality. What I find is that high net worth South Africans who have real skin in the game – not that Sim doesn’t, he does, and he really cares about South Africa and is hugely patriotic, I know him – those people tend to have a different conversation, it is less tentative. They’re like, ‘Hey man, this can’t go on, something’s got to be done,’ and that kind of thing. And therefore you can’t find less dilly-dallying…….20:01

Therefore I think what business has to decide is how to get around the realities of its own shareholder and governance dynamics in order to drive a cohesive political agenda.

JEREMY MAGGS: We’ve reached the crux of the conversation then. What is the call to action, particularly as far as business is concerned? You’ve looked at small business operators, you’ve talked about the big corporates, the multinationals. Practically, what is the call to action then in order to seize on that 1987 moment?

SONGEZO ZIBI: This is what I would do, and do it publicly – or at least say publicly that we’re going to do it. I would say Busa, BLSA and all of these organisations need to say [that] on such and such a day we are going to meet to discuss the political situation in the country, because it is untenable. While we don’t know what the outcome of that conversation is going to be, we need to figure a way out of here because we are responsible for millions of people’s jobs in South Africa. We’re responsible for billions in shareholder money. We’re responsible for a whole bunch of things. What we know is that everything we’ve tried over the last 15 years just has not produced the outcomes that South Africa should have.

We are going to have that conversation. We will see what the outcome is. It’s a bold step because it defines a clear agenda. You make yourself publicly accountable and you fortify yourself against somebody who says, ‘Oh, they went to meet in secret,’ and this kind of thing.

Now they can come out with a broad resolution, but I think that bravery to say we’ll meet on our own without Pravin Gordhan and Ebrahim Patel or Cyril [Ramaphosa], and come to our own decision about what to do with this untenable political situation in the country.

JEREMY MAGGS: What you’re saying is that it’s time they throw down the gauntlet.

SONGEZO ZIBI: Of course they must throw down the gauntlet. Listen, Jeremy, this country has been propped up by the private sector and civil society. We know this. Were it not for the NGOs and business, the country would’ve long [ago] sunk into the drain.

JEREMY MAGGS: We’ve got two questions to go, because I’m very cognisant of time. Whenever we record this I come back to the whole concept of Fix SA.

What would define, in your opinion, in the very short term – and let’s acknowledge it’s not going to happen during this elective time, but in 2023 – what would constitute a couple of short-term wins in order to start the process of fixing?

SONGEZO ZIBI: I would suggest that those in the business sector – and not necessarily those who head up the chambers but the captains of business – like Fani Titi at Investec and Sim Tshabalala and so on – need to on their own decide that they’re going to formulate together with their partners –

JEREMY MAGGS: It’s probably about 50 individuals, am I right?

SONGEZO ZIBI: There are probably about 50 individuals. Let’s say the top 40-plus other privately owned significant enterprises. They need to say we are reaching out to organise labour beyond Cosatu,  we are reaching out to civil society organisations to say what the deal we choose to have is, and what we believe is going to lead to a formula that recovers this economy and shows economic justice and so on. We are going to do this on our own without being convened by the ANC or government. That’s important because, Jeremy, that deal or that broad agreement that comes out of that is not ……23:55 to the ANC losing power. It enables actors in the economy to engage with whatever political structures emerge on the basis of very clear principles, very clear priorities, and they’re able to extract on behalf of the economy and society a clear pound of political flesh.

JEREMY MAGGS: But an approach like that is fraught with risk, because no doubt the ANC will cry betrayal, the EFF will play the white-monopoly capital card, the Democratic Alliance will feel completely marginalised. So that comes with risk, doesn’t it?

SONGEZO ZIBI: Tough, tough. What are they going to do? Shut down those companies. What are they going to do? Tough. I said we need to be bold. We need to grow some, you know –

JEREMY MAGGS: I think I know the part of the anatomy that you’re looking for.

Last question. You’re a young man, but I put this question to all of my guests. When you’re talking to your children or even your grandchildren, let’s say in 20/25 years’ time, what will you tell them about the time that you are living in right now? But more importantly, what is their role in carrying the baton?

SONGEZO ZIBI: I’m hoping to tell them that I managed not to lose the baton, and that baton is available for them to take forward. Right now we are at risk of losing the baton to begin with because we don’t want to be bold and find each other and create the solutions. That’s what I’m afraid of.

JEREMY MAGGS: In that same essay that I referred to, which is on the Daily Maverick if I am not mistaken, Songeza Zibi also says – and I quote – ‘The important thing is to be clearheaded about the common threats we face, our continuing priorities and to find ways for patriotic South Africans to work together’.

Songeza, thank you so much for joining us on Fix SA. My name’s Jeremy Maggs. Thank you for listening.

For more FixSA podcasts click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *