South Africans are arguably fairly accustomed to change as a result of the far-reaching political transformation and economic developments that have taken place in this country over the past 21 years. In the business milieu, too, change has been constant: the minerals and energy complex remains an import contributor, but it is no longer the dominant force it once was; the manufacturing sector has all but lost much of the natural and tariff protections that had sustained it during the isolation years of apartheid; and many of our largest companies have been allowed (controversially so) to move their domiciles to the UK.
Every now and then, however, an event occurs that reinforces just how much has changed and continues to change in South Africa. Just last week, there were two prominent examples: the R1-trillion- plus bid by Anheuser-Busch InBev for SABMiller; and the lower-profile, yet still significant, approval by creditors of a business-rescue plan for Evraz Highveld Steel and Vanadium (Highveld).
South African Breweries, SABMiller’s predecessor, was (and to a large extent has hitherto remained) an iconic South African company, with it origins linked inextricably to the Johannesburg gold rush of the late 1880s – a development that resulted in SAB’s founding in 1895 and listing on the JSE a few years later.
Its Castle, Hansa and Black Label brews remain ubiquitous features at braais, parties and restaurants. Yet, when the proposed transaction was announced, one would have been hard pressed to spot any of those domestic brands featuring in the photographs used to illustrate the print and television stories that flowed faster than lager. Instead, even South African readers and viewers were subjected to pictures of bottles of Miller, Peroni and Grolsch alongside bottles of Budweiser and Stella Artois. How cruel change can be at times.
But the mega-brewery deal was not the only reminder of the unceasing transformation of the domestic business landscape. Some 140 km to the east from SAB’s iconic 2 Jan Smuts avenue building in Braamfontein, creditors packed into the Elijah Mashiloane Hall, at the Highveld steel facility in Mpumalanga. They had gathered to decide the fate of yet another iconic company of South Africa’s pre- democracy era. A company that has fallen on hard times, owing to a combination of underinvestment and horrible market conditions.
Anglo American voted in 1964 to build the integrated steel mill, a decision that Harry Oppenheimer described as a “major single act of faith by private enterprise in the future of South Africa”. Last week, the embattled creditors put their faith in a plan underpinned not by the mainstay home-grown enterprises of the past, such as Anglo and SAB, but in a little-know resources group from Hong Kong, China.
Perhaps some solace can be drawn from the recently deceased baseball legend Yogi Berra, who is reported to have once said: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”