Business people can make great politicians, but . . .

Herman Mashaba, businessman and member of the Democratic Alliance, now mayor of Johannesburg. Jurgen Marx

South Africa’s economic capital, Johannesburg, has a new mayor, Herman Mashaba. His election marks two watershed moments: he is a member of the Democratic Alliance, which has never run the city before; and he’s a successful businessman who has never been a public servant. Does a business background matter in public service, particularly in the South African context? The Conversation Africa’s business and economy editor Sibonelo Radebe chatted to Lumkile Mondi from the University of the Witwatersrand.

Do businessmen make better politicians?

The first point to make is that business people are also citizens with political rights and responsibilities. And as part of the broader community they are affected by constraints in the public service. They assume civil responsibility because, for the most part, they believe they can make a difference.

Many business people will try and use their financial muscle to insulate themselves from the problems faced by ordinary people. Those who choose to get out of their cocoons and participate in politics can be special. Most are motivated by a genuine will to do good.

In the case of Herman Mashaba we have an entrepreneur who emerged from a poor background to become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in South Africa. He now wants to give back. The fact that he wants to give, and not take, means that he is likely to be a better politician. It also makes him hugely different from the current crop of the African National Congress' (ANC) leaders who come to politics with the attitude that South Africa owes them something. This has led them to loot public resources with impunity.

Businessmen who become politicians can bring fresh energy into the public service. They come from an ecosystem that is driven by urgency to produce measurable results. Politicians often weave these concepts into their speeches to sound clever, but for business people they are a matter of life and death. Businesses that run without a sense of urgency to produce measurable results fail.

Business people can also bring an ethos defined by shareholder expectations. Shareholders are unforgiving in their demand for value creation. They also demand transparency and accountability. For most captains of industry and entrepreneurs these demands become a natural way of doing things. Accountability then becomes second nature. They know that every cent counts.

This contrasts with the god complex adopted by some politicians who think they have a divine right to rule. You can see this in the way the ANC has handled its scandals. Instead of being humbled, it has responded with arrogance.

Business people also bring private sector networks that politicians are unlikely to have. In fact the ANC resents business. It tends to think that business owes it something rather than viewing it as a partner for development. This attitude has led to an estrangement between government and business.

Someone like Mashaba can close the gap between government and the private sector. He speaks the language of captains of industry. This may help end the prevailing investment holiday caused by the ANC’s chaotic leadership.

The ANC does not really care about accountability and the consequences of its actions. All some of its members care about is lining their pockets. The President has said that the ANC comes first. Mashaba’s statements on being elected suggest he understands that the country and its citizens come first.

What does international experience tell us?

We have a couple of examples that suggest that business people make better political administrators. New York is a good example. It was guided through remarkable progress by well-accomplished businessmen who became mayors – Rudy Giuliani followed by Michael Bloomberg.

One of the most valuable skills the best business people have is that they know how to harness human capability. Businesses thrive when they have leaders who have an eye for talent and can create conditions that are conducive for creativity and productivity.

This is a key factor in the success of many globally renowned cities. New York for example has risen partly because of its ability to harness multiculturalism. This is an asset that Johannesburg has – particularly in parts of the city like Yeoville and Bellevue – but has been neglected by the ANC administrators. Johannesburg attracts people from all over the world who converge to create a melting pot that has the potential to produce some of the world’s finest creativity.

Johannesburg is in many ways like New York in drawing people from across the continent and beyond. It just needs someone to harness its go-getter energy and guide it to greatness. All the key elements are there. It has one of the best financial systems in the world backed by deep mining capabilities which, when mixed with industrial capability, makes for a powerful combination.

What are the natural benefits?

Business people tend not to see the middle class as something to be milked. They see the middle class as a power that needs to be harnessed. The ANC has seen the middle class areas primarily as sources of revenue, given the increases in property prices, rates and tariffs, e-tolls and many more.

A business person is likely to know that there are more creative and effective ways to drive up a city’s revenue than overtaxing the middle class. All you need to do is to create conducive conditions for more people to do more business, enforce municipal by-laws, and voila, you create a broader tax base.

Another important point is that a businessman like Mashaba comes with the huge advantage of not being desperate to make money. He lacks the inclination to steal from the public purse. He comes as a volunteer to serve the public. He is not a careerist.

This is a commendable public service ethos. It also stands to encourage active citizenry among South Africans, particularly the apathetic black middle class. This must serve as a clarion call to them to stand up and take their rightful political posts. This will benefit the country by adding a modicum of professionalism to our politics.

What are the natural limitations?

A person like Mashaba can suffer from the lack of political legitimacy. This can be a problem in preventing non-cooperation from key sectors. For example, he needs to gain more legitimacy in the black middle class. His criticism of tenderpreneurs (politically connected businessmen who benefit from government tenders) and some of his views on black economic empowerment have caused some estrangement.

He will need to tread carefully around the subject. It is an emotive issue. The ANC has failed to transform the economy. Under the guise of affirmative action its policies have benefited a few individuals while looting public resources.

Another major challenge is how he navigates relations with ANC-led provincial and national governments. Mashaba’s success is not in the interest of the ANC and the party might try to undermine some of his efforts in their pursuit to get back into power.

The Conversation

Lumkile Mondi does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.