Picture: THE TIMES
Picture: THE TIMES

IS A big business such as First National Bank (FNB) a corporate citizen with responsibilities to society as a whole? Yes, of course it is. It is part of and operates in society.

Does that mean FNB, and any other bank or business for that matter — a car or food manufacturer, mining company, retail chain and the rest — should be a good citizen, not only pay its taxes and follow the spirit as well as the letter of the law, but also be free to play a positive role, even take the lead on issues in the general interest? Again, yes, of course it means that. Companies may choose to run a publicity campaign, for instance, suggesting we eat healthily; urging us not to waste water or litter the countryside; proposing we consume alcohol wisely; or suggesting we buy safer, more fuel-efficient cars rather than bigger and faster ones.

Behaving as a good corporate citizen can mean businesses doing all these things, where appropriate, and where both sides, the general public and the company, can be said to benefit — even if who benefits most is always disputed.

Doesn’t it follow, then, that FNB is also entitled to criticise the government of the day if the government is doing a bad job? Ah, well now, just a minute, hang on.

Why it is worth thinking twice about this question should be obvious.

We have left the area of the general good, strayed outside social and environmental issues and entered the contested and deeply compromising realm of politics. The view we have to take here, as calmly as we can manage it, is not that of the corporate citizen’s rights and responsibilities, but of our own as individual citizens. That means all of us.

Incomprehensible as it seems to those who think the African National Congress (ANC) is doing a bad job, many, perhaps most, South African citizens have until now always decided the ruling party is doing a good one and elected it repeatedly. For which side does FNB speak?

More to the point, who gave the bank the go-ahead to speak for either side in launching its You Can Help advertising campaign? It is not likely to be FNB shareholders even if they could have been consulted. A safe guess would be that FNB shareholders are presently the most unhappy of all South African citizens in this, because what makes corporate or individual shareholders happy are not beaux gestes but beautiful profits and dividends. The ANC’s top brass showed its willingness to punish both by threatening to withdraw the party’s business.

That leaves FNB customers, who will include, we should remember, FNB staff. Although their money is also funding the board’s ill-starred initiative, customers had no say in approving or disapproving of the advertising campaign before it ran and, if the public response to date is anything to go by, are as divided on its merits, not to mention its wisdom, as everyone else.

The conclusion is not so much depressing as baffling.

This latest FNB advertising campaign is not the first seemingly intended to call the governing party out for its shortcomings, only to be withdrawn abjectly at the first sign of the ANC’s anger.

It raises questions that contradict even the lame and misguided defence presented by FNB’s chief marketing officer, Bernice Samuels: that FNB’s advertising was meant "to galvanise".

Galvanise who? FNB customers? ANC opponents? The young? Everyone?

Never mind such blurred communication objectives; the overall direction here seems to lack a hold on reality.

Do at least some among SA’s most senior executives suppose they are more democratic than the citizen body of SA and hope to speak for them?

Do they sincerely believe they can spark off some kind of spontaneous civil society "movement" to bring the government to heel?

Many media commentators are fond of indulging that idea, of harking back to the exciting days but vanished world of the United Democratic Front.

If this is the explanation in the FNB case, those responsible should perhaps ponder that "democracy" is said to be here now, not something still to be won.

And that what South African democracy needs today is an organised, which means well-funded, political party of opposition, not a commercial bank at odds with itself.

They might also conclude that is something they are free to put their money behind without giving themselves and everyone else so much trouble.

Whelan is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a political analyst.