The struggle to get BEE ‘done right’ calls to mind a lady I knew, Barbara Willard.
Barbara Craig was born to a Scotsman and a young Xhosa lady, reputedly of the Sigcau clan, in Flagstaff, around the turn of the century.
She was brought up in the strict Victorian manner and went on to study at Fort Hare where she graduated and then spent a few years teaching in nearby schools.
Around her mid-twenties she met a handsome young Irishman named Peter Willard whom she married. They had three daughters and four sons together. By all accounts it was a happy and stable household.
The old Scotsman was still alive then, and had the distinction, Barbara’s children say, of owning the first automobile in the Eastern Cape. He built an empire of trading posts and general dealerships.
As was their custom, the entire clan set off for Durban every two years to shop, catch up with acquaintances and re-connect to family.
In 1951, the marching jack boots of apartheid were far away from Flagstaff, so the family drove into Durban with little sense of how the world had changed.
It is true that the clouds had been gathering for years before, but the Willard’s experiences of racism had been sporadic and distant. In Flagstaff particularly, there was little other than the day-to-day grind of life. Ideology, beyond religion, and even that was low key, was mostly absent.
So in Durban’s West Street, after hours of shopping, and growing increasingly perplexed by the new rules that demanded she walk in and out of certain doors and limit herself to shopping only at certain counters in shops where she had for years freely spent money, Barbara found herself in an unexpected conundrum: she needed the toilet.
Her daughter, who was a very young lady, relates what happened:
“As time went on and we realised that the same toilets we had used for so many years before were now closed to us, I watched as my Mom grew more and more desperate. There was simply nowhere to go. They hadn’t yet built ‘non-white’ toilets even as they closed the ones that were there, to us.
I watched as my mother, a dignified, proud, and learned woman was reduced to shame and indignity before her children. The feeling of helplessness I felt that day has stayed with me since. None of us has even gotten over that day.”
The story didn’t end there.
Later the same day, having too late found a place that helped, Barbara and her husband, Peter, went to a favoured haunt, a tea shop – they existed back then – away from the city centre, in Greyville.
The owner, a kindly man who had entertained the Willards for years, came out to meet them on the pavement as they approached to tell them that, unfortunately, while he could allow Peter into the restaurant, he would have to insist on serving Barbara her tea in a plastic cup outside. It was the law, you see.
Years later, with Barbara now resident with daughters in the United Kingdom and unable to find a life in this strange new South African world, the same daughter was summoned into government offices to be classified. She had, unwisely, like her mother, Barbara, married a white man. She was told, with three children in tow that she was not to return to the marital home on pain of imprisonment. It was the law, you see.
Today, Barbara’s daughter tells me, “Ask me what I want most, and I’d tell you I want our dignity restored. Until they work out how to restore dignity to people, and put as much effort into restoring people’s pride as they do into making money, nothing will work. It won’t, because those of us, who remember, want more than money.”
And this, I fear, is where empowerment has got it all wrong. It has become a soulless, mechanical thing. It has missed the mark.
It may have been born with the idea of restoring some dignity to people through economic redress (as if money can replace humiliation) but it has been high-jacked by cold, unfeeling and flint-eyed opportunists - both black and white - who care not a jot for personal dignity.
How did that happen?
In a world besotted with money, predictably, the fragile and troubling idea of restoring dignity to people through inclusion and redress has became commoditised: appoint so many black people to management, sell so many shares to well-known and connected personalities, and get these points and that level, and you will qualify for this or that tender or piece of business.
It is difficult to detect any notion of restoring dignity in empowerment as it is practised.
How we ‘do’ empowerment carries disturbing reminders of Franz Fanon’s fears that the black man will work out that to enjoy the white man’s economic benefits he will need to become as white as he can be, he will effectively have to turn away from the cause and state of his own people.
To be black simply will not do; he must become a black skin wearing a white mask. He must cease to be. Where's the dignity in that. And how do people who subscribe to that view ever hope to restore dignity to those they know who need it?
There cannot be any restoration of dignity in this reinterpretation of this basic tenet of apartheid: economic freedom for some while the rest receive nothing.
For empowerment to be ‘done right’ perhaps we should remember before we add up and scribble on our scorecards, keeping empowerment of those who need it most at arm’s-length and ensuring that the poor, needy and marginalised are as little intrusive in our lives as possible, that it should be ultimately about people: their fears, concerns, frustrations, memories, hopes and aspirations.
It is as much about restoring those maimed and killed and who spent time in exile as it is about those quietly stripped bare on a public street of their self-worth and their dignity and who lie buried beneath a mountain of neglect, unsure rationalisations and cynical determination to wish them away.
As Ariel Dorfmann pointed out in the 8th Mandela Lecture a few years ago, as long as the millions of people around us remain excluded, without dignity, the rest of us are doomed to forever look over our shoulders, worrying about the future.
Yet the solution stares us in the face. We have touched it, sporadically, and shown that we are capable of fashioning a response. We have stood together previously and touched each other kindly.
The first steps though, are civility and common cause, a strong memory of what was, and a vibrant imagining of what could be. The solution, in other words, demands a response from each of us.
If we each remember our past, feel the insecurities and fears and pain of the other, remember how we found each other once and have now and again since, and act to build the society we all know we want, we can overcome the empowerment tragedy.
Perhaps, when we do this, like many others who will be free to do the same, I can once again visit my grandmother’s grave, and read her name on her tombstone – Barbara Willard - without feeling shame at the memory of what she went through and at having failed her.
Mark Peach is author of Rethinking BEE: Breaking the Deadlock and Being Coloured.