If there's one thing which the 'Noworths' campaign has made clear, it's that there's a significant number of South Africans who still have no clue about what BEE is, almost ten years after the current Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment legislation was gazetted. Given the open racism that so many of these people exhibit, I don't expect this article to change their viewpoints - rather, it's intended for those young impressionable readers who don't know any better, and are swayed by fear and prejudice.
What follows is a brief crash course in BEE, why it's necessary and some common misconceptions.
The best place to start is the beginningAct No. 53 of 2003 - Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act: http://www.info.gov.za/view/DownloadFileAction?id=68031
If you want to know some of the Government's thinking behind the Act, view this strategy document: http://www.empowerdex.co.za/Portals/5/docs/dti%20BEE%20STRATEGY.pdf
Two particularly relevant quotes from that document:"Apartheid systematically and purposefully restricted the majority of South Africans from meaningful participation in the economy. The assets of millions of people were directly and indirectly destroyed and access to skills and to self-employment was racially restricted. The accumulation process under Apartheid confined the creation of wealth to a racial minority and imposed underdevelopment on black communities. The result is an economic structure that today, in essence, still excludes the vast majority of South Africans. It is crucial to understand the magnitude of what took place in our past in order to understand why we need to act together as a nation to bring about an economic transformation in the interest of all.""Societies characterised by racially or ethnically defined wealth disparities are not likely to be socially and politically stable, particularly as economic growth can easily exacerbate the inequalities. Therefore the medium- to long-term sustainability of such unequal economies is vulnerable. Accordingly, in South Africa, the socio-political and moral imperative to affect a redress to racial discrimination is also an imperative dictated by the need to develop a sustainable growth path."
Are we noticing the polar opposites of this Noworths argument?On the one hand, you have the racists: "Ever since the ANC came into power it was intent on taking all the money out of the hands of white businesses and giving jobs to unskilled black workers."Then, on the other hand you have the ANC: "We recognise that there are entrenched historical imbalances which need to be rectified in order for South Africa's economy to have a hope of stability."
An irony I've considered is that (in the private sphere) the same unskilled black people who have been alleged to have received high-paid senior jobs that they had no qualification for were hired by white people who were hoping to improve their BEE scores as quickly as possible. Private white citizens - not necessarily employers - would choose to not recognise this, rather laying the blame for these mis-hires at the doorstep of Government. As BBBEE has rolled out, Government has done what it can to rule out this culture of black tokenism (which has created some remarkably rich black businessmen), but it's still been seen largely as the bad guy.
Now, let's consider the number one complaint of white people against BEE: it's against our Constitutional rights! Ok then, let's look at the relevant section of the Bill of Rights: http://www.info.gov.za/documents/constitution/1996/96cons2.htm#9
"3. The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.4. No person may unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds in terms of subsection (3). National legislation must be enacted to prevent or prohibit unfair discrimination."
AHA! The worry worts are right. It's right there in the Constitution. Oh wait, there's a fifth point:"5. Discrimination on one or more of the grounds listed in subsection (3) is unfair unless it is established that the discrimination is fair."
Now, fair discrimination is an interesting contradiction, but South Africa is full of contradictions isn't it? In this specific case, you can see the Government's reasoning as well. The ANC couldn't come to power in 1994 and tell the majority of formerly-oppressed South Africans: "Well chaps, now that we're in power, the fight is over. Yes, you've been placed at practically every conceivable disadvantage, but that's all over now. Good luck and remember to vote again in a few years!"
I find it quite amazing how white citizens moan themselves sick if so much as a streetlight isn't repaired promptly within a few days, but when it comes to the roll-out of BEE and the necessity to repair these entrenched inequalities, so many are quick to say, "Oh, the process is far too rushed. We should look at trainee and intern programmes, and let a natural balance assert itself." Hmm ... natural balance? If left in the hands of the majority of the openly racist whites who just happened to be business owners, how long would it take for black South Africans to be promoted to middle-management positions, never mind co-owners of businesses? No, that wouldn't have worked, sorry, as evidenced by all the openly racist "I'm a white business owner and I won't hire any black people" comments on the anti-Woolworths threads.
That we're sitting here almost twenty years into South Africa's democracy, and almost ten years after this policy was implemented and still debating it like novices is proof of two things: 1: South Africans require everybody around them to jump onto a bandwagon before they feel safe to jump onto the same bandwagon.2: The ANC has in fact been a pillar of restraint in the roll-out process, which could have been forced through a lot more drastically and with worse consequences.
Ultimately, nobody wants discrimination, or even race. However, these concepts are as South African as braais and biltong thanks to our political heritage, and most often when you dismantle anything you use the same tools that it was constructed with in the first place. It's a process, it's going to take time, if anything it hasn't been moving as quickly as it should (further reading: Second Transition discussion document - http://images.businessday.co.za/ANCMaindisc.pdf), and if you don't agree with it just because you're suddenly disadvantaged because of it, think of the millions of black South Africans who are at a far greater structural disadvantage than you'll ever be in.
Chances are, if you're skilled and persistent, you'll still find a job with relative ease. Thousands of white workers are doing it all the time around you. And if you're not good enough for an employer to hire you, just own up to the fact that it has nothing to do with BEE.
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