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ANC vs FNB: who’s in the wrong?

by Stephen Grootes, 23 January 2013, 10:06
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CONTROVERSIAL: An image from the FNB advertising campaign
CONTROVERSIAL: An image from the FNB advertising campaign

THE African National Congress’s reaction to the advertising campaign by First National Bank (FNB) featuring teenagers talking about the future of South Africa and making political comments seems to have caught the bank by surprise.

However, this may be part of a trend that marks the relationship between business and the ANC. In essence, FNB may simply have been a victim of both political naivety and bad timing.

The ANC’s response appears to have been carefully calibrated. The ANC Youth League sent out a statement on Monday morning, the ANC itself followed up later in the day and the ANC Women’s League put out its own comment towards the evening. This kept the story going and drove discussions on Twitter.

The ruling party responded similarly last year when Nedbank chairman Reuel Khoza said there was a “strange breed of leaders” ruling the country. In that case, elements within the ANC, led by secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, reacted furiously. However, there was also a formal statement from the government, issued by Jimmy Manyi, government spokesman at the time.

That has not happened in the FNB case. It may be because there is no permanent head of the Government Communication and Information System, but if the ANC had wanted an official comment from the government, it would probably have got it. The fact that it has not shows a deliberate decision not to draw the government into this debate.

Timing appears to have been a major factor in the FNB fracas. The relationship between the ANC and big business is strained at present. Just last week Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu claimed that Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) had put “its licences in jeopardy” by announcing that it would close four of its shafts.

Aubrey Matshiqi, fellow at the Helen Suzman Foundation, has suggested that the real reason for this anger is that ANC leaders feel they did everything business asked of them at the party’s Mangaung conference last month, where issues such as nationalisation of mines and labour broking were decided in favour of business.

Matshiqi suggests that for these leaders, the Amplats decision just a few weeks after Mangaung, followed by the FNB campaign, was simply too much. A comment by Mantashe that “every time we react to these things we are called bullies … people put their fingers up our nose and expect us to react as if nothing has happened” adds credence to this view.

Mangaung may have been a victory for business organisations that lobbied intensely on policy issues. In particular, the formation of the Black Business Council (a group of black business organisations that broke away from Business Unity South Africa over a dispute around labour broking) led by Sandile Zungu, who appears to have President Jacob Zuma’s ear, meant that business actually had a voice in those discussions.

Crucially, that voice could not be labelled a puppet of white apartheid capital, and thus the debate would have been more about economics than about our history.

For ANC leaders to be confronted with both the Amplats decision and the FNB campaign, then, could have been seen as a rude return to the days when business was “white” and tried to tell the “black” ruling party what to do.

This will not help heal the relationship between business and the ANC. Both parties are going to have to work harder at this at a time when they are unlikely to want to make any concessions.

The ANC is often accused of not understanding business. However, it can now point to the FNB campaign and claim, with some justification, that business has made no attempt to understand it.

The ANC wants two main things: to win elections and to transform society. Business may now need to be seen as making more of an effort to help the party realise these goals. That could, in turn, make the ANC more responsive to requests from business.

FNB itself should consider whether this fracas has hurt its brand. While the upper-end urban market may agree in general with some of the sentiments expressed in the campaign, the ANC can be a powerful mobiliser of people. The bank has had impressive growth in recent months, which it would not want to risk. That may have played a role in its decision to pull the campaign, rather than fight it out in public for much longer. On balance, it might be foolish for the bank to dip its toe in political waters again.

With hindsight, the FNB campaign may have then been a mistake. Certainly, the bank’s decision to use teenagers has opened it to criticism from people both inside and outside the ANC. However, the party’s leaders may also want to reflect on whether this campaign would have had any impact at all if they had not reacted in the way they did.

• Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter.

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