SO, the easy sometimes and difficult most of the time, on-and-off, relationship between the Black Business Council (BBC) and Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) has finally screeched to an end.

Where to from here? Who gets to lose and who stands to benefit? And, what about the broader business unity needed to take the country forward? Does this split open the door to the possibility of arresting the unhelpful balkanisation of the country’s business community into racial laagers?

Closeup shot of businesspeople shaking hands in an office

Closeup shot of businesspeople shaking hands in an office

If yes, who would be the better placed to lead a fresh beginning?

To understand where the two organisations stand on the split and where things are likely to head after this, it suffices to note the comments from both sides. In acknowledging the end of the relationship and, seemingly relieved, BBC President Danisa Baloyi announced that the BBC has declared 2017 as the year of “radical economic transformation”, and that it would continue to use platforms such as Nedlac (National Economic Development and Labour Council) to advocate a less apologetic approach to economic redress.

She went on to declare the split as an end to 23 years of a partnership between white business and black business in South Africa.

Speaking on behalf of BUSA, its president and Telkom chair Jabu Mabuza provided reasons for what seemed an inevitable split.

“The decision to terminate the participation of the BBC through BUSA in Nedlac was taken unanimously by the BUSA board. It was informed by recent developments at Nedlac where it became apparent that BBC and BUSA were not aligned in relation to key issues facing the economy,” he revealed.

He further explained that some of the key issues included the impact of the post cabinet reshuffle downgrade of South Africa’s sovereign credit rating, matters of monetary policy, as well as disagreements on the most appropriate way to address these issues.


A bit of history

Back in 2003, what used to be known as Business South Africa (BSA) – considered to represent white business interests – agreed to create a merger with the Black Business Council (BBC) to form what became known as BUSA. It was all done in the positive spirit of ending the legacy of separate development and joining hands to create a united representative body for corporate South Africa.

But this was not to last long. The honeymoon ended in 2012 when the BBC decided to go it alone again, unhappy that the interests of black businesses were not sufficiently accommodated by BUSA. Nevertheless, the BBC continued to engage in Nedlac through BUSA, which remained the recognised voice of all business sectors. This too, is set to end now if no unity is forged again.


The poles

The obvious assumption, going by the words of its president, seems to be that the BBC can legitimately claim to speak for all “black” business and that, in its eyes, BUSA can only speak for “white” business in South Africa.

But a level-headed deep dive into who owns most major business enterprises in South Africa will show that things might not be as straight forward as some wish for them to be. This is particularly so given that most, if not all, large businesses have significant black ownership in line with relevant B-BBEE codes.

Assuming that this is the case, it becomes hard, in the current environment, to tell who qualifies for the “white businesses” tag and who doesn’t.

By openly and unashamedly declaring its adherence to the call for the still ill-defined “radical economic transformation”, the BBC is also attaching its wagon to the Zuma-driven locomotive that has been at the forefront of this call, regarded by many people as unhelpful left-wing sloganeering.

Accordingly, and this is what Mabuza seems worried about, the end of an alignment between the two organisations in relation to key issues facing the South African economy means they can no longer agree on the required strategies to implement in order to address the challenges. Accordingly, they neither share the appreciation nor the urgency to put measures in place to reverse the downgrade, to work to grow the economy and start sending out positive messages to the investor community out there.

By declaring that the BBC would continue to participate in Nedlac as an independent voice of black business, “as that would provide it a great opportunity to advocate for the aspirations of our (read black) people”, Baloyi drew the battle lines and sought to de-legitimise BUSA as a voice of unrepentant and, possibly, anti-transformation white business.

For her, the BBC is a force for good and BUSA can only stand to defend the interests of what has come to be known as “white monopoly capital”.

One of the meanings given to “radical economic transformation” is the intention to nationalise certain sectors of the economy and ensure that majority shareholding in existing (white) businesses is given to black people.

Where the BBC talks about “radical economic transformation”, BUSA evokes “inclusive growth”, meaning that in order to create an inclusive economy for South Africa, it would not suffice to simply divide the existing pie further. More people can benefit meaningfully from the economy only if the pie is grown to include them.

Irrespective of how one turns this around, no part of this skirmish is good for South Africa, especially now with the world watching which way things will go in our politics.

It is time for relevant role players in politics, which determines economic policy, to partner again with a united South African business community to work out a strategy that is supported by most and that will draw the country back from an almost certain abyss.

We need to start sending positive messages to the world. The era of racial balkanisation should be left behind and work must begin to unite the country behind a shared vision that will culminate in a fully inclusive economy.

None of this can be achieved in the absence of level-headedness.