An open letter to the executives of Ford South Africa regarding the handling of the Ford Kuga crisis:

Over the past months, several of your customers (allegedly around 50) have watched in horror as their vehicles exploded around or in front of them. Having spent hundreds of thousands of Rand on what for many would have been their dream motor vehicle, they have stood helplessly by as their car went up in smoke. One person – a 33-year-old man by the name of Reshall Jimmy – lost his life in a most horrendous and painful fashion; trapped in a burning Kuga.

Despite all of this, it has taken you well over a year to recall the effected model. Month after month you chose to argue the ‘technical details’ of the fires. You simply failed to take responsibility.

Like many, I am disgusted by your too-little-too-late response; even the tone you employed in announcing the recall was cold and unfeeling.

Your callous disregard for human beings; their lives, their families and their hard-earned money (apparently, Kuga owners cannot give them away), is utterly sickening. For a brand with your proud history you have let yourself down in the most spectacular fashion. Your response says only one thing: Ford cares more about the bottom-line than about the safety and well-being of their customers. I am no MBA, but even I can tell you that this is an appalling business strategy that will have disastrous consequences for sales of all models not just Kugas. By way of example, my wife and I have been toying with buying a Ford Eco Sport. Let me be clear: after your response to the Kuga crisis we will never buy a Ford of any description. Regardless of what “the facts” of the Kuga case turn out to be, you are – in our minds at least – a company that is untrustworthy and uncaring.  

What should you have done in this case? Firstly, you should have taken a decision to operate with compassion above all else. How could you have done this? By putting yourselves in the skin of Reshall Jimmy’s family. You could have asked yourselves what it must feel like to be them or the 50 other effected parties or the approximately 6300 other Kuga owners. If you were battling with this, you could have employed a trained counsellor or facilitator to take you through a process whereby you would devise a business strategy based on a foundation of compassion. (Your business brains would love this bit: operate with compassion and you will save the floundering reputation of your business. This is because the “little people” love to see large corporations operating with compassion and humility.)

Secondly, you should have said you were sorry; immediately and then repeated it often. Sorry is a very powerful word that many people long to hear when they are suffering. Even if you later turn out to be “right”, you should have said sorry.  

Then, you should have quickly recalled all the models in the affected category even if that meant that Ford suffered badly. Lives are more important than profits and jobs.

The thing that is so deeply troubling about your response is how eerily South African it is. Your cars explode so you immediately go on the defensive and argue that the customer must be wrong. No one quickly takes full and total responsibility, says sorry, recalls, resigns. By the same token, our country’s good health and reputation burns and our president argues that it’s the media’s fault or the courts fault or the Public Protectors fault or the work of foreign agents. The people speak at the polls and again, it is not his fault.  It is never his fault; never the fault of his executive.  No one loses their job or takes a salary cut. Business just carries on as usual. 

Failed ministers continue to lead; failed rugby coaches continue to coach; failed teachers continue to teach; failed principals continue to lead schools. Exceptions to the rule – the Pallo Jordan’s and Brian Molefe’s of this world – are few and far between.

Take heed Ford South Africa; take heed of what happened to the ruling party in last year’s local government elections. This was caused by arrogance, selfishness and a lack of compassion for their customers – the citizens of South Africa. Your response to the Kuga crisis mirrors this and the same large-scale erosion of support will happen to you.  

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. 

This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.