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Place people first before profits

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Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

By Wallace Mgoqi

“But in the final reckoning, it will not be simply economics and technology that end it. It will be people- people who care. We are those people. We have to ask ourselves – each one of us- where we stand (Robert MacNamara, address to the Governors of the World Bank).

From its early beginnings, in the late 1990s, the Sekunjalo Group has had as its mantra –“ putting people first, people before profits “, up to this day.

Today, it is no surprise that from a paltry number of employees at the time, who was working in one office in Claremont/ Kenilworth, today we speak of 8500 employees, spread out in various locations, through the length and breadth of the country, supporting no less than 40,000 dependants in their families.

So it boggles the mind when after years of hard work, sweat, blood and tears, in building a business empire that is the Sekunjalo Group of companies, some people self-righteously determine to collapse it, regardless of the consequences to the people involved.

Building these companies took more than twenty years, so to even think of collapsing something like it, is more than preposterous, outrageous and outright dumb, especially having regard to the high levels of unemployment, crime and other social ills in our country.

There is also no appreciation of the enormous efforts and self-sacrifices made by the architect of this business empire, Dr Mohamed Iqbal Survé, who has from the beginning made it a matter of policy and principle to put people first – put people before profits. Those of us who have been walking alongside him, all along the way, can testify to this boldly without any fear of self-contradiction.

I served as a director and Chairman of the board from 1999 until 2005, so I speak from personal experience. To those who are raising issues of non-compliance with domestic and international norms and standards in banking, warranting the closure of bank accounts- the very life-blood of any business, we are asking for the particulars of the alleged breach, which has not been disclosed thus far, save to highlight some negative comments of a Mpati Commission report, now under review, as well as negative media publicity on the Group, which allegations, it is stated, need not be proven true or false, we are asking: “Is it not important that the law must also be accompanied, if not predicated upon principles of justice, (in the sense of fairness, equality, non –discrimination for its legitimacy)?

We are asking, assuming that there was a serious violation of the standards and norms and the law, in considering punishment, were there no alternative forms of punishment that could be considered, as opposed to resorting to the fatal sanction of closure of the life-blood of a business, once lost can never be resuscitated? Can any business in the modern world operate without banking facilities? Why this callousness and insensitivity?

“Come, and let us reason together …”, this cannot be the wisest and most prudent way of resolving our disputes! Surely, whatever the gander-goose family has done, by way of a breach, cannot justify the proverbial “killing of the goose that lays the golden eggs.”

There was once a Master teacher who rebuked the upholders of the Law, who were steeped in the Law, using harsh language, calling them “ a brood of vipers “ and likened them to white sepulchres, which are white outside, but inside are full of rotting /dead bones. He was driving the point home that concerning oneself only with the observation of the letter of the law, without also taking into consideration issues of justice and the impact of the application of the law upon people is equally, if not more important in life.

The Law itself must have as its foundation, justice for its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. There comes a time when people see through the façade and rebel against such conduct.

In the midst of all this, we hardly give thought to the fact that Dr Survé is under no legal obligation, (moral obligation maybe, yes) to keep such a high number of people employed. It is a matter of choice on his part. He could reach a point where he considers that keeping this ship in the stormy waters is just too costly, he should rather, sell everything, pack his bags and go and enjoy the wealth he has accumulated with his family and relatives, in some tax-haven countries such as Bermuda, where other wealthy men have gone. But up until now, he has not done so, precisely because he cares for people deeply, despite all the headaches and heartaches he has been caused, especially by the South African white liberal-dominated media, that has vindictively followed him since the Irish man, Tony O, Reilly sold the newspapers, now under the Independent Media, to a black Consortium, led by Dr Survé.

His powers of the mind are exceptional, hence his adversaries are exasperated that they have not been able to pin him down, up until now.

From that time he has had to fight countless battles, for the simple reason that his adversaries did and still do not think black people should control the media, the way the Independent Media is doing.

More importantly, it is such a shining example of transformation, going by the latest reports, showing the top echelons of the newspapers, in its stability, in terms of the diversity in race, age and gender. It shows up many of the rival media houses that remain untransformed.

Everything else stems from this root cause, taking over this power-base of communication. All the other battles are sideshows.

Tomorrow, if he were to wake up and say he is giving it back, you would see the calm that would descend, it would be like the morning dew disappearing, just after the sun has arisen.

As a country, having regard to the state of our economy, and the plight of our people, who wake up every day, not knowing where the very first meal of the day is going to come from, let alone the other two meals of the day, most of us take for granted, we ought to be having an attitude of doing everything possible, not only to preserve existing jobs but more importantly, to grow the opportunities for having more jobs.

We cannot afford the luxury of killing the very companies that create jobs, and this is not just in defence of the Sekunjalo Group, but all companies that are still surviving in this very hostile climate.

After the Covid -19 pandemic, the perennial Eskom crisis, with no end in sight, the haemorrhaging of the economy, shedding of jobs and all other social ills, not least of these being gender-based violence and endemic crime in our society, we have become very vulnerable and insecure.

“One hears young people asking for a cause. The cause is here. It is the biggest single cause in history… Many in rich countries are so selfish that they would – and maybe will willingly get richer and use the technological superiority that their riches give them to fight off the hungry millions outside. I for one shouldn’t like to live in such a world.

A long time ago, Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, warned about the dangers of the rich being surrounded by hordes of poor people when he said the following: “What improves the circumstances of a greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far the greater part of the members are poor and miserable”.

It should concern every one of us, that it does not matter which city, town, hamlet or village you go to in South Africa today, you find long stretches of shack dwellings which are growing every day, where people are trapped in abject, grinding poverty, with no hope of a better tomorrow.

Putting people first – people before profits gives us an opportunity, as far as we can, to give a helping hand to our less fortunate brothers and sisters, before they lose hope totally- it is a social time bomb, ticking away every minute, every hour, and every day. William Blake put it well when he said: “If you want to do good, do it in minute particulars.”

This is what Dr Survé and the business empire he has built over the years are teaching us. You only need to listen to a tea lady who has been with one of the subsidiaries in Ayo, for twenty-one years, this year, and how grateful she is that she still has a job to go to every day of her life. We have not given voices to the other 8, 499 employees in the entire Sekunjalo Group.

They remain a statistic in the mind of the public who read newspapers, but they are real people, who live and breathe like us.

Let me end off with the words of Edmund Burke: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do little.”

Mgoqi is chairman of Ayo Technology Solutions Ltd. He writes in his personal capacity.