Melanie Veness: PCB CEO
I was recently on a South African trade delegation to France, and I must say that I can appreciate, more than ever before, why our investment figures look like they do. Apart from the political uncertainty, policy is a huge barrier and then there is our attitude.
We had business engagements set up by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) on the first day. This was arranged via Mouvement des Entreprises de France (MEDEF), a similar organisation to Business Unity South Africa (BUSA). On the afternoon before the engagement, we met at the South African Embassy for a briefing. We were told that the programme had changed and that some of the larger French corporations had pulled out, because “they did not consider the delegation to be important enough to meet with”. That set the cat amongst the pigeons alright. Many of those present felt aggrieved, and understandably, we had travelled a long way at great expense. Some suggested that we pull out and not engage at all. I was horrified.
Firstly, one has to question whether it is inappropriate for a senior government official to be so deliberately inflammatory. What a way to start new relationships!
Secondly, I can totally appreciate the decision taken by those French corporations. The South African business delegation was comprised mostly of heads of State-Owned Enterprises, representatives of organised business organisations and owners of relatively newly established businesses. To expect the Chief Executives of large corporations to engage with us without there being a clear agenda is, in my opinion, unrealistic. There is no way that I could get the CEO’s of my big companies to meet with relatively new French businesses, even if they had flown all the way to South Africa.
The actual business engagements were not a total disappointment, I made some great contacts. The concern raised by every single person I spoke to, however, was B-BBEE.
I am one hundred percent committed to the idea of transforming our economy, but let’s be honest, B-BBEE has not been successful in achieving this objective. It has made a few people very wealthy and make no mistake, it is a serious investment constraint. When people raise it, we don’t want to hear it. In fact, Government is driving this objective so hard, that we actually come across as bolshy.
I sat their thinking that it’s rather like offering someone dessert from a menu, and when the customer asks for apple pie, we tell them, that actually, we’re going to give them lemon meringue, they’re going to pay full price, and then we’re going lop half of the portion off and give it to the chap at the next table (whom they’ve never met) and they’re going to like it. Then, when they say that they won’t have dessert, we get offended.
The truth is that we are not the only investment choice, there are plenty of options, and let’s face it, we are no longer the gateway to Africa, so like it or not, we don’t get to dictate unfavourable terms and get away with it. We would do so much better if we opened our arms and rolled out the red carpet for investors and then offered generous tax incentives for B-BBEE compliance. As they say, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.