This is the keynote address by Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu at the book launch of “Behold the Turtle” by Professor Bonang Mohale on 30 November 2021 at the Constitution Hill, Johannesburg
Leaders of the business community,
Leaders of business schools,
Aspiring leaders and leaders in the making,
Susan and the Mohale family,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is with great delight and pride that I stand here today to speak at the launch of Bonang’s second book ‘Behold the Turtle’. In his first book ‘Lift as you Rise’ Bonang makes reference to the turtle as follows: ‘Behold the Turtle, it only makes progress when its neck is stuck out.’ He shares that he learned this sagacious expression from his beloved grandmother. Expanding on this insightful parable, Bonang goes on to state the following: ‘If you are not prepared to stick your neck out and open yourself to new experiences, influences and inputs you will want to close the borders, you will want to be only in the presence of the familiar, and when that happens you regress.’
In many ways, the significance of a turtle sticking its neck out to make progress is an apt depiction of Bonang’s style and approach to leadership. He has firmly and consistently maintained that: ‘Leadership is about creating movement and influence’ and being decisive regarding who you are and what you stand for. This should give us clues about the nature of the man. Indeed, in my note in his new book I make the following observations regarding Bonang: ‘[A]uthenticity, genuine care for the interests of others, integrity, respect, diligence, being scientific and methodical and being a true patriot best describe how I have experienced Bonang in the many years I have worked with him.’
I do not know how you have experienced Bonang. How you have come to understand and appreciate the virtues that are dear to him. Virtues that he is passionate about and strives to live by; that he demonstrates in his interactions with others and in the organisations he leads and has led in the past. To get a clear and in-depth understanding of Bonang, I implore you to read his books. I am convinced that if you do so, you will not only be astounded by the depth of his convictions but by how he has provided strong and effective leadership in very complex situations throughout his storied and stellar career. I sincerely believe his work will make you pause and really think about the virtues that guide your own life and how you can live them better on a daily basis through your conduct, choices and actions.
Reading Bonang’s new book allowed me to reflect deeply on the crisis of leadership in South Africa. I thought of failures of leadership in politics, government, state owned enterprises and in a number of big private sector companies. I thought about how quickly we have fallen from glory as a country in the last twelve years. Consider, for a moment, that in the early 2000’s we were the revered champions of the African Renaissance. Our brothers and sisters welcomed and appreciated our leadership in the resolution of long standing conflicts on our continent and they took to heart our unwavering advocacy for good governance, the rule of law and respect for human rights as the path to prosperity. We were the beacon of hope for the renewal of the African continent and a tangible example of what was possible if key principles were followed.
Those appointed to leadership positions in government and other state institutions during that time performed their duties with pride, diligence, integrity and a commitment to place the needs of our country’s citizens first. This ethos of eminence, care and accountability led to the rapid dismantling of apartheid institutions and the building of new centres of excellence like the South African Revenue Services, Treasury, the South African Reserve Bank, the Judiciary, the office of the Auditor General and several other specialised agencies. Delivery of services to the black majority that was neglected under apartheid progressed at an unprecedented pace. This was best evidenced by the wide-ranging roll out of electricity, clean water, improved healthcare and schooling, and access to life-enhancing government services in previously neglected black rural and urban areas. Sadly, the last twelve years have seen an equally rapid erosion of all these hard-earned gains. Eminence was forcefully replaced by incompetence; care was displaced by indifference; and accountability was overpowered by corruption and greed. This is what happened when the moral fibre of our leadership changed.
All the transformative achievements in the first fifteen years of our democracy occurred because we had leaders who were deeply conscious of the sacrifices made by the people of this country to achieve freedom. The dehumanisation, humiliation and impoverishment of black people under colonialism and apartheid was still fresh in their minds. They were also conscious of the fact that these conditions were inflicted on black people because they were regarded as inferior. Therefore, they knew that once they were free, they had a duty to redeem their dignity and respect. To prove to themselves and the world that black people were capable of taking charge of their destiny. And to manage their politics, government and economy in accordance with the norms and standards that humanity has distilled to be the most appropriate and efficacious in the twenty first century.
They knew that they dare not fail and that redemption was not only for themselves as members of the African National Congress, but for all the victims of colonialism and apartheid. They understood that they had to end the humiliation and suffering of the black majority and that failure to do so would be an unforgettable betrayal of those who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom and our nation’s posterity.
The early years of our freedom were also characterised by the emergence of great leaders in the private sector. Reuel Khoza and Thulani Gcabashe, on the one hand, and Dikgang Moseneke and Sizwe Nxasana, on the other, who respectively led Eskom and Telkom, provided world class leadership that clearly proved that, despite the denial of opportunities under apartheid, they were equal to the best business minds out there. Phuthuma Nhleko transformed a pedestrian MTN into a global player in the information and technology space, while illustrious leaders such as Bheki Sibiya, Futhi Mtoba, Jabu Mabuza and Bonang Mohale played pivotal roles in re-legitimising big business and positioning it as a credible partner in the rebuilding of the country. And while it is true that the pace of transformation in the private sector remains slow, outstanding achievements by business leaders like Sipho Maseko at Telkom, Mteto Nyati at Altron, Nompumelelo Madisa at Bidvest, and many others have continued to prove that we have capacity to perform to the highest standards of excellence, integrity and complexity.
Perhaps the more promising development in the private sector is that the progressive leadership that is driving the alignment between the interests of business and those of the nation as a whole has become truly South African. Not black or white or solely male, patriotic South Africans across the colour lines. This is consistent with the virtues that Bonang is espousing in his new book and is part of the reason why they are welcomed and supported by progressive leaders across the business spectrum. His appointment first as Chief Executive of BLSA and, more recently, as President of BUSA are clear evidence of that.
The clarion call he is making through his new book, and indeed his first one, are both impeccably timed. As we all know the country took a different trajectory from about 2009 onwards. The ideal of an African Renaissance and the aspiration to prove to ourselves and the world that we were capable of managing our politics, government and the economy in accordance with the norms and standards that characterise successful progressive countries worldwide, were almost entirely abandoned. More painfully, we lost our appreciation of the profound responsibility given to our generation, perhaps by destiny or fate, to lift ourselves and future generations out of poverty and underdevelopment after centuries of deprivation and the denial of freedom.
From 2009 we drifted away from the uplifting ideals that underpinned our struggle for freedom. It started when the leadership of the ruling party and the government got hijacked by an ambitious and powerful minority that then maneuvered to repurpose the state to serve its own interests instead of the interests of South Africa and its citizens. In other words, we became a patrimonial state in which the ruler and a chosen circle of family and comrades usurped the powers of the state and used those powers to extract material benefits which they shared among themselves in return for political loyalty. The result was rampant corruption and state capture. As I have explained in Chapter 3 of my book ‘Enabler or Victim? KPMG and State Capture’: ‘The bigger more lasting tragedy was that the capacity and capability of state institutions were systematically eroded. There was a clear agenda to use government institutions to self-enrich a narrow circle of the elite. The agenda became arrogantly pervasive at all levels of government-national, provincial and local as well as in key state owned enterprises.’ The private sector also became complicit in these shenanigans by enabling, facilitating and financing questionable deals. Some of these deals have now been proven to have been at the centre of state capture and corruption. These are some of the painful and damaging examples of what can happen when we drift away from our core beliefs, and why Bonang’s seminal work is so important right now.
Bonang assumed executive leadership of the BLSA in June 2017, at a time when the nation was being traumatised almost daily by revelations of state capture and corruption. This was a time when the anti-state capture campaign led by the Economic Freedom Fighters and civil society formations had coalesced into a national movement, energised by the recommendation of the National Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, to the State President, to appoint a Commission of Inquiry into state capture. Realising the threat to its own interests and the need to protect the economy and welfare of South Africans, BLSA identified Bonang Mohale as a leader with the requisite attributes for the challenge. Bonang has a number of qualities that made him the standout choice for the role. A track record of outstanding leadership accomplishments, intellectual sharpness, genuine respect for others, diligence, humility, integrity, communication capabilities of the highest order and the courage to speak truth to power no matter the context or people involved.
It is safe to say that Bonang did not disappoint. He, again, proved himself more than equal to the challenge. He led key processes that crystallised the positive role of business in society. Above all, he became the face of business in the fight against state capture and corruption and through his principled leadership, ensured that business takes a clear stand through the adoption and enforcement of an Integrity Pledge.
During this time Bonang also participated in numerous high level discussions with the government, labour organisations, big business and civil society on virtually all the key challenges we faced as a country. Some of the critical discussions were on governance, rule of law, ethical and effective leadership, the fight against corruption and state capture and the nation’s socio-economic development priorities. He participated in the crafting of many economic policy and strategy proposals on behalf of business. He also took part in deliberations and consultations with leaders and experts from the rest of the world through important platforms like the World Economic Forum. His approach demonstrated the value Bonang placed on one of the most important qualities of leadership. The ability to listen. Guided by his own values and beliefs, he was able to infuse the collective wisdom of others into his leadership approach and become the true champion of business.
His books are invaluable because they share, with striking depth and clarity, Bonang’s experiences and insights during his journey thus far. The underlying message of his work is so compelling and clear it leaves no excuse for making sure that we are not lost as we continue to explore paths to a better future. Moreover, they are about preserving this knowledge for future generations.
I salute Bonang for this new gift he has given us. The virtues he espouses in ‘Behold the Turtle’ as well as the lessons on ethical and courageous leadership that he shares will no doubt serve as an inspiration to both experienced and emerging leaders. He gives us profound insights pertaining to what it takes for a leader to gain the trust of the people he or she leads as well as how to successfully and ethically achieve the goals and objectives of the organisation.
His emphasis on ethical leadership and serving a societal purpose that transcends the maximisation of shareholder value and self interest, speaks directly to the issues that have eroded public trust in leadership both in the public and private sectors. The capture of the political centre by a corrupt extractive political faction has eroded the culture of the state at the core, making it difficult to clean and rehabilitate. Moreover, the movement of individuals from the ruling party to either new political parties or other existing ones has increased the risk of infecting the whole political system with the culture of corruption. In this ethically compromised environment, political coalition is best understood as a potential extension of abhorrent behaviour instead of being a beacon of hope.
Another complicating factor is the nature of our economy and the manner in which we are endeavoring to address the challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality. As Moeletsi Mbeki says in ‘A Manifesto for Social Change – How To Save South Africa’: ‘Today the largest social class in South Africa comprises people living in poverty. Through the weight of their numbers, it is this underclass who decides who gets elected.’ Apartheid left behind a large segment of African, coloured and Indian people with no education and skills to participate in a modern economy. Post 1994, this segment has ballooned. Thousands of school drop-outs join their ranks every year. Even worse, university graduates are also joining the underclass with no hope of gaining meaningful participation in the mainstream economy. This underclass that is composed of unskilled workers who earn very low wages, informal sector entrepreneurs and traders, the so-called tenderpreneurs and the unemployed, constitutes the majority of our voters. Because of their vulnerability they are easily influenced by increasingly empty promises of being lifted out of poverty or receiving the essentials of life that they desperately need and ought to have already. This situation is a fertile environment for patronage politics which are about getting votes by promising jobs, tenders, government grants and other monetary benefits from the state. Of course, the ANC has long used patronage politics to its advantage. State capture and rampant corruption are a direct result of patrimonialism that had been incipient in the ruling party for some years, but took an extreme form from 2009 onwards. The frightening truth is that, as long as the country has such a huge segment of its population with no meaningful stake in the economy, and therefore nothing to be proud of and defend, the risk of destructive insurrections will remain high. This can easily be exploited by a populist leader.
Currently, none of the political parties have visions and strategies to address the ballooning of people with no means of participating meaningfully in the mainstream economy. All of them talk about alleviating poverty and hardship which is important, but none of them have clear ideals regarding how to tackle the underlying root causes. Scaling up service delivery, improving schools, healthcare, electricity, clean water, sanitation and roads is important and necessary but not enough. Similarly, increasing the growth of the economy from one percent to five per cent is important and necessary but not enough.
For real solutions we should look East. Guided by a clear sense of commitment to its nation’s pride, well-being and prosperity, Japan was the first to take off followed by the Asian Tigers. Now China and India, which were the biggest and most industrialised countries for the greater part of history, are reclaiming their former glory. Kishore Mahbubani in ‘Has the West Lost It?’ says: ‘From AD 1 to 1820, the two largest economies were always those of China and India. Only after this period did Europe take off, followed by America. Viewed against this backdrop of the past 1,800 years, the recent period of Western relative over-performance against other civilisations is a major aberration. All such aberrations come to a natural end, and that is happening now.’ This is what leading thinkers and movers in Asia believe. This is what is driving their increasing confidence and self-assertiveness. They have aggressively positioned themselves at the forefront of cutting edge innovations in artificial intelligence and other new technologies, and are building economies that give their people a sense of purpose, dignity and prosperity.
What, then, is our vision and ambition? Have we not grasped the basic truth that it is only when the masses of ordinary people are empowered with economic freedom, quality education and relevant technical skills, together with requisite financial and technical support to engage in their own economic activities, that dignity enhancing economic participation and development becomes possible and self sustaining?
It is Bonang and others like him who have managed to overcome great odds to achieve success in the complex world of modern business who can show us the way. We have an opportunity to use the lessons shared by Bonang to reset our politics and transform our government. Even in this modern and digitised age the most meaningful way to share lessons learned is through writing books of substance and using them as a catalyst for engaging in serious conversations about the future of our country. This is what Bonang’s new book allows us to do. For reasons discussed earlier our current politics are unlikely to lead us in the right direction. They are unlikely to take the required long term view. I believe this is because the trade offs that are necessary for us to lay a foundation for a better future are not politically attractive in the short term.
Some of these trade offs which could begin to set us on the right path include placing the respect for the rule of law above appeasing political competitors in the short term. Other logical choices and actions include appointing cabinet ministers and other senior leaders in key government and state enterprises purely on merit. Merit, in this case, must again be understood to mean both deep competence and, perhaps more importantly in the current climate, unflappable integrity. Making these logical, but not necessarily voter-exciting choices, would allow for the reprioritisation of the budget to increase investments that will build our national productive and innovation capacity.
The launch of Bonang’s ‘Behold the Turtle’ should encourage us to stick our necks out and start engaging seriously on these matters. We can make a new start and rise to be the South Africa of Tata Mandela’s ambition. Let us use Bonang’s boldness and courage to get started.
Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu, South Africa’s first qualified black chartered accountant, is the Chancellor of the University of Pretoria. The book is available for sale in bookshops (both bricks & mortar and online).