SOUTH AFRICA'S CHANGING FACE

The captains of South African industry are discovering, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, that the arrival of democracy has not only turned the political landscape upside down but is profoundly changing the way they do business.

A government dominated by white Afrikaners has made way for a multiracial one with many more constituencies, from trade unions to the rural poor, clamoring for attention.Protection of vast sectors of local industry is gradually giving way to competition from both local and foreign suppliers.

Meanwhile, the end of South Africa's international isolation has opened the door to an array of foreign interests, ranging from investors to nongovernmental organizations and aid donors.

The advent of democracy has opened avenues for these groups to make their voices heard, including parliamentary portfolio committees (similar to U.S. congressional committees), nine provincial governments and a less restrained media.

''There are more points of access and leverage now, especially at the provincial level,'' says Raymond Parsons, chief executive of the South African Chamber of Business.

On a personal level, white businesspeople face the challenge of dealing with black ministers and civil servants whose backgrounds and perspectives are very different from their own.

Culture shock has also hit white businesspeople in their offices, where they are increasingly having to deal with blacks as equals and superiors. One businessman describes encounters with former exiles, educated in Moscow, Prague, Cleveland and Leeds, as ''a humbling experience.''

Besides having to work within an unfamiliar framework, business has faced a host of high-profile issues, from employment equity and black economic empowerment to the ''unbundling'' of the handful of corporations that used to dominate local business.

Many executives and managers are struggling to adapt. ''Business has underestimated the external environment and the problems it creates,'' says Theunis Eloff, chief executive of the National Business Initiative.

The 170 corporate members of Mr. Eloff's group want to expand their contribution in housing, education and other areas that businesspeople usually consider beyond their responsibility.

Lincoln Mali, general manager for public policy at the Banking Council of South Africa, echoes concern among blacks at the inability or unwillingness of mainstream business to swim with the tide.

''You've got institutions that have their foundations rooted in Eurocentricity,'' he says. ''Business organizations are not buying into government's role in transformation. Most simply complain and are cynical, instead of building relationships.''

Concern about deteriorating relations between government and business prompted a group of white leaders to arrange a series of informal meetings with their black counterparts late last year. The whites were deliberately drawn from a younger, supposedly more broad-minded generation.

Meanwhile, a joint black-white business group has put out feelers to Deputy President Thabo Mbeki's office with the aim of building bridges to the country's next head of state. At a recent meeting, the group proposed a joint initiative for the tourism industry as a way of creating jobs.

Organizations such as the National Business Initiative and Business Against Crime, whose 250 corporate sponsors donate equipment and management skills to the hard-pressed police, are evidence that at least business leaders recognize they have wider responsibilities than pushing up earnings per share.

Demand is also growing for the services of a proliferating array of consultants on diversity training programs and change itself.

Stanley Bongwe, a diversity management specialist, says he tries to persuade companies that coming to terms with new realities is in their best interest.

''Let's face it,'' he says, ''employment equity is going to be law. A company can choose to fight against the winds of change, or to be constructive.''

Examples abound of individual businesses that have made a contribution toward the new South Africa, from the oil company trucks that delivered ballot papers for the 1994 elections to two groups of auditors who helped parliamentary committees scrutinize public accounts.

Nevertheless, there is a pervasive sense that business could do more.

According to Mr. Eloff of the National Business Initiative, the prevailing attitude after the 1994 election was: ''Thank God, it's back to business as usual. Let's get on with making money.''

The priorities of Mr. Eloff's group for this year include initiatives to improve the relationship between business and government. These ideas suggest white-controlled business still has a way to go before it feels fully at home in the new South Africa.

According to Mr. Parsons, ''Business as a whole can be on the right side of history if it plays its cards sensibly.''

If it doesn't, it runs two risks. The first is that business won't take full advantage of opportunities now available. The second is that if business plays its cards poorly, it will be ineffective in fending off threats to its interests.

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