ALTHOUGH our president’s state of the nation speech was drowned out by the tragic events around Oscar Pistorius, he did refer to mending the relationship between the government and business. The relation between business and politics is a tricky one. In fact, one hears as conventional wisdom: "Do not mix business with politics, religion or sex."
It obviously depends on what one means by "politics". If the reference is to laws, tax and VAT requirements, or agreed-upon codes of conduct that govern business activities, there is no way in which politics can be avoided. The bare minimum of politics requires business to give careful attention to ensure compliance. Here, a business person has no choice as to whether he or she wishes to engage in politics.
The complication starts where there are choices to be made. There are different levels of involvement: If a business decides to join the local or national business chamber, it becomes part of the collective voice of business. And although not visible as a specific business, there is interaction with politics at a local, provincial and national level.
Most business people feel comfortable to operate under this cover of relative anonymity. This gives them a chance to influence policy and laws without having to face the body politic directly or in the capacity of being CEO of company so and so.
There are at least two examples of a more direct personal interaction: When a crisis faces a specific company or sector, the CEOs might want to make their case more directly (see Anglo American two weeks ago). Or, when there are opportunities specific to the business, the captains of industry lobby politicians and policy makers more directly to ensure the most favourable outcome possible. Examples are those who buy tickets for government breakfasts or pay money to exhibit at party congresses (including the African National Congress Youth League when it still had power).
So far so good. But there are two examples where business people who solemnly profess that one should not mix politics and business act in dishonest ways. The first "dishonesty" is the matter of financial contributions to political parties. It takes two to tango, and political parties will resist the possibility of forcing these donations into the public domain. Just ask Helen Zille.
The dishonesty lies not in the principle of supporting a political party, but that in a democracy the public does not know who influences whom. Businesses are quick to point out that they are apolitical, but how will we know unless links with political parties are declared?
The biggest dishonesty and the most complex decisions, however, arise in situations of doing business under unjust or partially just political dispensations. How much money did mining houses and property developers make under the cover of apartheid legislation without challenging the glaring human rights abuses? Does one invest in China or Zimbabwe or Iran by turning a blind eye to their totalitarian regimes?
Who decides where and when to draw the line? Is the US not also a war-hungry nation with a history of support for totalitarianism and the overthrow of those it does not like?
History teaches us a clear lesson: where money is to be made, business people will move in irrespective of the human (and environmental) cost. In these cases, business profits from political injustice and, in fact, often relies on the injustice to operate successfully (it is called "stability"). Business does not see it as its duty to address the underlying political situation. It will move out only under direct pressure that is seen as more detrimental to the reputation of the business than staying involved.
What can Google do against the mighty Chinese, and what chance does MTN stand against Iran’s political establishment? And what can a global mining house do against "indigenisation" in Brazil or Zimbabwe?
So, it is a messy picture. This brings me to a point about business education. In how many pure business degrees are politics, theories of the state, models of government, and a bit of history included?
If we accept that business is married to politics, we may just as well prepare for a tumultuous but relatively happy union.
• Naudé is the former head of the business school and currently deputy vice-chancellor, academic, at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth. He writes in his personal capacity. This article is to inform and educate, not to advise.