THE year is coming to a close, and that means it’s time for awards. So on the basis of totally subjective judgment and no formal rules at all, here are my top five business people of the year.

But before the envelopes are opened, a word on context. It should be noted that 2012 was by most standards, not quite annus horribilis but something close to it.

SA started moving backwards economically, being downgraded by the rating agencies. Estimates of growth in gross domestic product were reduced twice. Then there was that rather double-edged sword, an unflattering Economist cover.

The year was horribly punctuated with a massacre during a wildcat strike at Marikana, which apart from the tragedy, seemed to reflect SA really as little changed from the apartheid era. All the key elements were there; people living in squalid conditions earning barely livable wages. That was combined with a rolling, out-of-control protest, and a style of policing rooted in intimidation and brutality. It was, as they say, déjà vu all over again.

It’s interesting to look at who succeeded this year not only as an exercise in heroism, but also to reflect SA’s diversity and its dualistic character: something we all instinctively know all about.

While the politics of the year was pretty venal, the bright spot was the stock exchange, which for all kinds of reasons kept hitting records.

The success of the JSE reflects my personal moral of the year: South Africans cannot escape their predicament through yet another reconfiguration of the political environment. Their salvation lies in the heady mixture of enterprise and individual accomplishment, something which these five people demonstrate not only can exist but does exist.

Anyway, on to the envelopes.

My first choice is Ian Moir, CEO of Woolworths. The retail sector has been a great performer over the past decade, supported by the old South African adage that when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. Because it’s performed well, the sector is studded with some exceptional success stories, including Shoprite CEO Whitey Basson and particularly Mr Price’s CEO, Stuart Bird.

But I think Woolworths stood out for getting so many different and diverse things right. Like many retailers, it’s expanding fast in Africa, but unlike many retailers, it’s winning in Australia. Its product lines seem to be very tight, well targeted, and the provisioning seems fluid and efficient. All this is reflected in an exceptional return on equity. (Not actually the best as it happens; Bird shares that award.)

Woolworths is an odd store: its mix of food and clothes seems counterintuitive. Most big retailing involves logistics issues that are simply frightening, but to do this in both clothing and food, and while expanding at rapid rate, and across continents, is an extraordinary number of balls to juggle. Moir stands on the shoulders of a great retailer in Simon Sussman, but he’s taken the baton and run with it, and 2012 is the year in which Woolies really stood out. Oh, the share price is up 78% year to date, compared to the all share index’s rise of 16%.

My second choice is Stephen Saad, CEO of Aspen Pharmacology. Saad’s name has come up often over the past five years, because it’s impossible not to notice a business growing this fast. I like Aspen not only because of its growth, but because of the context in which it has grown; in the middle of a howling gale of competition from the monster pharmaceutical companies of the first world and, to be honest, the monster pharmaceutical companies of the developing world, like Indian giant Rambaxy. The pharmaceutical business involves a complex relationship with government, which adds another layer of complexity.

To grow in this context requires an extraordinary and intuitive sense of products, and relationships with governments and competitors (who in this industry are sometimes allies). It requires an understanding of science and marketing in equal measure. And it’s easy to forget, pharmaceutical companies are also industrial producers.

In some ways, 2012 was not a particularly exceptional year for Aspen; the company grew at same explosive rate it has been growing in the recent past. But this is the year when you can really sense the potential. Aspen is now operating in 100 countries, and its growth spots now include an extraordinary geographical array from Mexico to Australia. Who woulda thunk it? A South African pharmaceutical company takes on the world. The share price is up 57% year to date.

My third choice (these are in no particular order) is First National Bank CEO Michael Jordaan.

As we all know, banking has been a tough industry over the past five years or so. But if there is anyone who wins the "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade" award, it’s the ridiculously young and enthusiastic Jordaan.

What I love about Jordaan is that he has done something in banking that nobody thought possible; he’s created a sense in which banking is a matter of personal choice and not so much a matter of legacy inertia. As a result, banking has become more competitive, although it still has some way to go, I suspect, and should be more client focused.

He has also helped re-establish the legitimacy and the importance of marketing, and innovative marketing at that, in an industry in which most executives seem proud to maintain a marketing approach I would consider lumbering. In so doing, he and his team have got a lot closer to the essence of what a service industry is about.

The notion of "innovation" in banking was always considered a bit of a swear word by the stolid proprietors of yore, and this notion has become even more intense with the shenanigans of merchant banking which caused the banking crisis of 2008. But this is a different kind of innovation, and it’s helping draw SA closer to something its always been terrible at; real service excellence, not just for the top drawer but for Everyman. The share price of First National Bank’s owner, FirstRand, is up 36% year to date.

My forth choice is Naspers CEO Koos Bekker. In a sense 2012 has not been a remarkable year for Naspers. There have been no big acquisitions or dramatic new directions. Yet 2012 is something of a breakthrough year in the sense that it’s the year when the forward thinking and planning have really shone through.

There is a management theory that no company should ever be without a five-year plan, and if it is, it will, in five years, fail. Handling that vision is pre-eminently the job of the CEO, and there is very little that is more important.

Naspers is a good example, and Bekker is a great exemplar, starting from his decision to take no salary. Until this year, the conventional wisdom was that Naspers is essentially a cheap entry into the hopelessly overvalued Chinese company Tencent. Yet, as Tencent has delivered on its promise, this view is increasingly undermined. And as that happens, the value of the other investments are beginning to shine through. And by the way, who saw that potential in the first place?

Tencent’s forward price:earnings ratio is now down to about 25, which is almost cheap by internet company standards. And now the promise of steady investments in other internet companies in other parts of the world over the past decade will start to roll out. That this was done in the face of the might of the US tech giants, in SA, by a guy named Koos — well, it gives you a kick, doesn’t it? Naspers’s share price is up 54% year to date.

My fifth choice is a tricky one, and it’s arguable. I have to say I considered a whole bunch of people, all of whom have shown great tenacity during tough times, particularly in the mining industry.

But ultimately my totally worthless statuette goes to an odd choice: the chairman and former CEO of Richemont, Johann Rupert. In corporate gossip, Rupert has a whole tribe of detractors. They claim he’s a bit of a name-dropping churl, obsessed by golf and his own opinions. The Richemont business was conceived and built by his eminent and much admired father, Anton, and he has been a bit of a bullying steward of this readymade bequest.

I think this view fabulously underestimates Rupert, who I suspect has a great business instinct. Rupert also gets kudos in my book for jumping in to manage the company when the then CEO got sick. He has been in charge of Richemont for the past two years or so, and really they have been crackers; the latest interims broke all records.

It’s true, the luxury goods business has the wind at its back at the moment, with fast-rising wealth in China and huge new markets of customers. But those customers still need to be found and the goods sold. The unfolding of this business has been done with great aplomb, as has selecting and managing a sense of the style and needs of the new rich. It all argues some really great brand management. Richemont now really only has one true competitor, the hulking LVMH (which has debt of $7bn, compared to Richemont which has $4bn in the bank).

The rest, including Hermès, Swatch, and Christian Dior, trail. And, you can’t get away from this: I just love the idea of the style of Europe and the world being defined by an oke from Stellenbosch. Share price up 44% year to date.

This is of course not an exclusive list. Other companies that showed up strongly this year include a great return to form of Imperial, a whole bunch of property companies, Mr Price, as mentioned, AVI and Famous Brands, and Vodacom among others. There have been some extraordinary turnarounds, including Supergroup, which was on the verge of bankruptcy.

It’s noteworthy that this is a group of white males, but that is just happenstance; black executives will begin showing up more and more, as they have in previous years.

The point is really not to single out anyone in particular.

The point is just to try demonstrate that even though on the surface the year might seem like a shocker, in the world of commerce (the world where things really matter) some people have had and are having a fabulous time.

We need more of that in 2013.