In the face of overwhelming adversity and strife, it is a natural human emotion to withdraw from crisis. Last night, as my executive team and I at MTN ended yet another crisis update, a wave of despondency hit me, and I said out loud, to no one in particular, “I have no more words.”
But that doesn’t help, does it? It doesn’t help to have no words. It doesn’t help to remain quiet, to focus only on what matters to my family and the business I happen to run.
As I write this, MTN South Africa has closed over 100 stores, mostly in Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal. Over 100 base stations are currently down, and our technicians can’t safely reach the sites for repairs due to the ongoing unrest.
Over a thousand MTN employees can’t get to work and millions of calls and queries from our customers cannot be attended to as our primary call centre remains inaccessible.
MTN South Africa directly and indirectly creates employment for over 20 000 people but we are obviously not the only business going through this. The negative multiplier effect of halted business is further crippling our economy, which was just starting to show some small green shoots of recovery from the pandemic.
While the outlook has been bleak this week, I’ve found some solace reflecting on our roots, as MTN and as a nation. Our company was born out of South Africa’s democracy, which prioritised peace, diversity and inclusion over a history of division and hatred. We are a resilient people and while it might seem trite to say that “this too shall pass”, it’s true because we have been through tough times before.
We have confronted the most terrible of situations. We have emerged on the other side, battered and bruised, but having survived because South Africans made the conscious decision to choose peace over violence and dialogue over discord.
Consider some of the bleak situations we faced in the not-so-distant past. I look back at the political violence of the early 1990s as apartheid was crumbling and we were trying to usher in our hard-fought democracy. The townships were in flames, 500 people were dying every month, security forces were patrolling our streets, inflaming the situation and neighbours fought neighbours. Yet we kept our eyes on the prize and ensured that democracy was not derailed. Against the expectations of the whole world, we patiently stood in the voting queues and vanquished apartheid. It was hailed as the peaceful revolution. We did that.
Consider how close we came to civil war when Chris Hani was assassinated one fateful Easter Saturday. But instead of heading over the precipice driven by anger into violent insurrection, we weathered the storm and ensured the peace process held firm.
We are currently going through one of the bleakest times in recent memory. We need to focus on what is important for us to survive as a nation. We cannot destroy all that we have fought so hard for. We cannot undermine the achievements of our democracy.
The future of all South Africans, rich and poor, big business and small business, profit for not-for-profit, can only be built on that ethos of democratic resilience and fortitude that repeatedly ushered us away from the precipice of ruin.
Now is a time for us to urgently reflect on what has gone wrong and how, as individuals and as one of the biggest companies and most respected brands in South Africa, we can ensure that we never fall into this pit of lawlessness and anger again.
South Africa’s future must be a country that belongs to all. We cannot be a nation of winners and losers, players and spectators. Education and digital infrastructure for all must be the foundation for a country that works for all its people.
Future less clear
We cannot afford to be complacent. This time we must look at the devastating economic and social conditions under which the vast majority of South Africans are forced to survive and, instead of tut-tutting about the situation, embark with purpose on a strategy and actions for meaningful and sustainable change.
MTN provides services to, among many others, spaza shops, local hairdressers, small pharmacies and printers and other business services. But our commitment to those entrepreneurs, who are very often black owned and are carving out new businesses in previously underserved communities, is as unflinching as it is to our huge blue-chip clients. But the difference this week is that the blue chips know they will survive, while the future is much less clear for the rest.
As big business, we have a responsibility to further prioritise the support of small businesses and I am calling for an accelerated and coordinated effort, particularly in the ICT sector, to help small businesses. A successful and sustainable South Africa needs large and small businesses prospering side by side. This requires big business to send more work the way of small and micro enterprises and we must do this not to maximise B-BBEE points, but because it is one of the most impactful ways we can quickly reignite the economy. There is no time to waste. Many parts of the world are already shaking off the effects of Covid-19 and we cannot afford once again to be left behind.
At MTN, we have an unshakeable faith in South Africa. We continue to invest, to build a world-class communication infrastructure, to serve our 33 million customers and we will continue to work with our business partners, regulators, government and all our stakeholders. And we do so because we remain clear that the majority of South Africans are simply seeking to achieve the most basic of human endeavours, which is to give our children better than what we ourselves received.
I have lived in many countries across this continent. I have witnessed the scourge of violence and have seen the long crippling effects thereof. But I have also seen countries that have chosen peace, dialogue and inclusive growth emerge stronger. We have that. Whether it is communities clearing up debris or delivering food parcels to the needy, the relentless optimism of South Africans is already visible.
South Africa will survive; it always does. But as we emerge on the other side, battered and bruised, we must pledge that this will not happen again. Not on our watch. The time for action is now.
- Godfrey Motsa is CEO of MTN South Africa