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The world needs business to keep the wheels turning

by Jon Foster-Pedley: Dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.
At a time when the world seems teetering on the edge of the abyss (politics is parlous, diplomacy is difficult and all-out war seems imminent in flashpoints across the globe), you’d be forgiven for thinking that chambers of business, especially international ones, would be at the bottom of any list of priorities, if not wholly irrelevant.

And yet, if you did think that, you’d be wrong.

The simple fact is that business, particularly global business, makes the world go around. Even at the height of the most brutal phase of the Ukraine war this year, it was possible to get representatives from both Russia and Ukraine to agree to talks to allow grain shipments to Africa. It might seem perverse, but yet both parties understood that there was a broader context, an even bigger threat of starvation than the existential threat that Ukraine faced.

Often when all else feels impossible, business finds a way. COVID-19 was another example, with public private partnerships coming to the fore to establish local vaccine-making plants to end Africa’s dependence on a world whose attention was increasingly fixated inwards, withholding critically needed vaccines to ensure their own people got inoculated first.

Sometimes, our world feels as if we are living through the lines of William Butler Yeat’s poem The Second Coming as the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart, and the centre cannot hold. We see the evidence all around us, as Yeats reminds us; the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity... as some foul beast lurches to Bethlehem to be born.

But when the conspiracy theories are rampant, what we need is to be grounded with the capacity to sift through the complexity. Over and above the very important personal skills you need to master to do this (such as the ones typically honed by an MBA degree), you need connections, networks of people you can trust but who can also put you in contact with people who can make a difference.

Business chambers provide precisely this, the opportunity of networks of like-minded individuals working together to find solutions that are mutually beneficial and unsustainable. But business chambers also do far more, they provide stable channels of communication which allow connection when the official channels are unable to – or when those channels have imploded entirely.

South Africa’s current foreign policy is a case in point with relations with particular countries under particular strain, almost at the point of collapse, yet the connections and conversations continue, facilitated by parallel structures. But even before the level of demarche or recall of diplomats, often something that a high commissioner or ambassador couldn’t possible say officially to a host country, could conceivably be uttered, unofficially, by that country’s chamber in the host nation with far less risk to the official relationship but still obtain the same effect by ensuring the message gets through to those who need to hear it.

These chambers also provide valuable sounding boards, being able to report back to the countries they represent with grassroots information which might not be normally accessible to traditional emissaries.

In an increasingly multi-polar world, global business chambers can play an even more important role, and the British Chamber of Business in Southern Africa is a very good example of this.

In the aftermath of Brexit, there has never been a better time for South Africans to engage with Britain. Over and above the traditional and historical links, Britain has much to offer from an economic, cultural and social perspective. Britain is also one of the most naturally and organically multicultural societies in the world. There is education and innovation, while trade has moved far beyond the historically extractive nature of the colonial era to a new form of trade that is engaged and committed to the people in the countries in which the investment is made. It is very unlike other foreign nations where the rhetoric might be similar but the effects of loan defaults and the hangover from one sided investment can have unimaginably bad consequences, even existential ones, for the unwary.

It's vital that we develop the ability to look beyond the history of the old world to be able to shape the history of the new world by leveraging the opportunities that already exist. Britain has a strong economy and a global one at that. It remains one of South Africa’s largest trading partners.

Total trade between the two countries was £10,8-billion1 between July last year and June this year, of which total UK exports were £4,6-billion, while the UK imported goods worth £6,1-billion from South Africa. Currently South Africa’s is the UK’s 29th largest trading partner. There has been considerable cross investment too; in 2021, the UK foreign direct investment in South Africa was £21,5-billion, while South African foreign direct investment was £7,9-billion.

There are more than 900 British companies based in South Africa who all want to grow and employ more people. But not all British brands are British owned, so effectively we are having the exponential effect of working with ostensible British brands, but which have multinational ownership and interests.

There are many South African companies that want to expand into British markets. The chamber can help these companies through its relationships and contacts with the relevant officials and departments in both countries as well as help. The chamber can also arrange confidential high level briefings with the government leaders for prospective investors as well as concerned business leaders.

It all adds up to a very serious forum of individuals and a critically useful platform for dialogue because in times of trouble the members of chambers of business and commerce will always be looking for the constructive solution, the possibilities of business, whether it is sorting out the deadlocks involved in the granting of visas or forging multilateral, multinational public private partnerships that have the capacity to provide returns for their investors and a lasting improvement to the lives of those they employ and the communities in which they operate.

As the time approaches for us to make New Year’s resolutions, perhaps the one you should be making, as a progressive and committed business leader, is to get your company to apply for membership in the British Chamber of Commerce in South Africa in 2024 – if you aren’t a member already.

Useful resources:
Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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