What SA needs is a big long-term plan to hold back the tide of discontent and negativity and some clear thinking of how and when it will be executed.
Along with like-minded responsible and frightened South Africans, I looked on with distress, fear and anxiety as parts of our country were engulfed by acts of public violence, flames, and wanton looting.
Mercifully, that is now over, and the challenge before us is to return to living our lives safely and peacefully and running our businesses without fear of attack and disruption. That is starting to happen, but we all remain understandably jittery.
It was tragic that so many lives were lost; no society likes to see the deployment of the military and the negative apartheid-era optics associated with it. So far, the measured and tempered approach adopted by the SA National Defence Force is holding, and we trust it lasts.
What remains of great concern to the wider business community is the huge financial losses caused by the looting of factories and warehouses. For many the losses, particularly for small businesses, were just too great, and doors have closed, probably permanently. Supply chains that were broken are being fixed, but at great cost, and this will have a negative impact for months to come. On a wider scale the ratings agencies have been spooked, and will be scrutinising new data that could result in further downgrades, the consequences of which are familiar to all of us.
The word resilient is overused when it comes to SA and its citizens, but it is an apt description and a heartfelt tribute to workers who have rolled up their sleeves and returned to production lines; to logistics managers who have got trucks rolling again; and to shop owners and mall managers who have swept, cleared and dusted down, and have opened their doors once again for trading.
In coming months our economy will be rebuilt on their courage and fortitude. They deserve all the support and help we can give them. And now, as we begin to emerge from the disruption, it is critical for business and political leaders to keep coming to the fore and standing together. We also need to remain vigilant about opportunistic criminal elements who predictably saw the gap and took advantage.
The wider business community, which has already acted with speed and aplomb, continues to stand ready and will continue to help where it can. Our forward momentum now is contingent on powerful and resolute leadership making clear and strategic decisions, sometimes more quickly than they are used to.
For public and private sector leaders this means entering uncharted territory and setting out in new directions. This will be uncomfortable at times, and they will encounter choppy waters and might even meet strong resistance as the status quo is challenged.
One cliched definition of leadership is framing the challenge clearly, taking wise and careful counsel, and then rolling up one’s sleeves. I’m reminded of a quote to this effect from former Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah, who bluntly said: “Action without thought is empty. Thought without action is blind.” There is a powerful message here for all of us on the bridge of whatever vessel we are piloting. I fear we are not giving this crisis enough considered deliberation, but at the same time if we reflect and deliberate too much we will be in deep trouble.
At this vulnerable time our biggest fear should be inertia and lack of any visible and meaningful action, big or small. Every day business leaders need to be measuring their progress and telling their staff about the success they have collectively achieved. In that respect the flywheel of recovery will start to spin more quickly every day.
But we also need to grapple again, and seriously, with the big problems that continue to delay economic growth. What we now need is a big long-term plan to hold back the tide of discontent and negativity and some clear thinking of how and when it will be executed.
It is common cause in SA that we are gold medal winners when it comes to planning. But, to ride on the current wave of Olympic excitement, we often fail when it comes to competing in the final. We have a real chance now to change that mindset and begin anew in this harsh midwinter of 2021.
So, how should this plan look? In my mind a one-day national recovery colloquium led by Business Unity SA and government must begin the process by asking key questions as to how this attempted insurrection happened; how to prevent an uprising like this in future; and, on a more practical and less philosophical level, how to help small business with immediate effect.
Then we need the establishment of a permanent high-level SA Police Service/justice department team to fast track investigations and consequences for the criminality displayed. I want to see more urgent engagement with SA’s tech sector to improve co-operative capability to enhance future intelligence gathering, and the creation of a short-term permanent supply chain tactical unit to safeguard important road travel routes such as the N3 highway between KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, SA’s most vulnerable supply chain route.
We also need to apply our collective minds to forms of intervention to enable the retail sector to safeguard their transportation vehicles and facilities as they speed up and normalise the supply of goods to KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
And then we need to reassure the anxious investment community. That will take a co-ordinated effort from both organised business and government, with assurances that our strong centre has held and is holding, and that we remain open and ready for trade and growth.
There is no doubt we have much work ahead of us, but I remain confident that with genuine commitment, sharp focus and diligent application we can pull ourselves out of our current predicament and recharge our economy.
It’s all a question of how fast we are prepared to coalesce, co-operate and act with one strong and common purpose.