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There is no neutrality in Political Responsibility

Achieving Consensus through uncomfortable truths: Building a Foundation for Productive Conversations in Business and Politics.

By Lee Appleton, Heath of Truth South Africa

As a researcher, I strive to be neutral. Clients pay to find out what’s really out there, not a neat package of data that confirms their existing brand strategy. That can mean delivering hard truths, which could include negative perceptions about their products and services. Or, worse, that the public prefers the competition. However, its precisely these insights that empower businesses to make better decisions.

I embarked on the research process for the Truth CEO Collective – a series of off-the-record interviews with some of South Africa’s most dynamic business leaders – as foremost, a neutral observer. On paper, this project was no different from a typical brand insights mandate – applying the most appropriate research tools (in this case, in-depth qualitative interviews) to derive insights that can help us make better decisions. My own perspectives and values were neither here nor there.

However, a comment by one of the panellists at the Truth CEO Collective launch event, recently held at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), gave me pause for thought. Speaking at the event, entrepreneur and Rise Mzansi Chairperson Vuyiswa Ramokgopa told the audience that, in the current situation the country faces, there are no non-political acts. In a crisis, even doing nothing is a political choice.

That was a salient reminder that our decision to speak to CEOs, to interrogate their concerns and press them for practical solutions, was not prompted out of mere intellectual curiosity. Asking questions, opening space for debate, seeking truths that offer guidance for action, these are not neutral undertakings.

In other words, this project was certainly political. But political does not mean partisan.

One of the key findings that emerged from the report is that CEOs are concerned that ordinary South Africans are not sufficiently politically educated, that they need to take seriously their democratic privilege and hold leadership to account.

However, a demand for democratic accountability is not the same as a political interference. Some CEOs clearly would like to see the ruling party removed from office as quickly as possible. Others want the current leadership to be more responsive to the electorate. Those are private preferences; the point is not to tell people how to vote, but to urge us all to prioritise civic participation and ultimately hold our democratically elected leaders to account.

Of course, the privilege of political freedom also brings responsibility. Many respondents were clear that business must lead by example. That means attention to enhanced governance and refusing to compromise, even when an under the table deal can make all the red tape go away.

It also means that large companies have a critical role to play in developing SMMEs and providing support across the value chain, so that more entrepreneurs – especially those without easy access to capital and connections – can thrive.

Perhaps the most encouraging finding to emerge from the research was how much consensus there is, beyond politics (in the conventional sense of the word). For instance, interviewees with varying views on the role of a developmental state – all agree that we need competent, decisive officials at all levels of government – in a sense a professional civil service independent of government. The question of the precise role of the state is secondary from the quality of leadership. That may seem like a narrow point of consensus, but it is a powerful foundation on which to build productive conversation.

Of course, that conversation is still ongoing. With general elections looming, and with misinformation swirling across social media channels, we need to keep seeking those truths – even the ones that aren’t so comfortable to hear – and hold on to those consensus points, so we can debate with purpose, and hold each other to account.

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