Friends & Friction: The black executive in the matrix

2014-06-12 10:00

“Don’t waste your time with black executives,” a music promoter told me. “They only have the power to say no. When they have to say yes, they have to go to the big bosses. I’ve learnt this the hard way in the past 20 years.

“So I go straight to the white executives who tell you upfront if a decision is beyond their pay grade. If they like what they see and hear, they’ll organise the meeting with the big boss, introduce you and give you a chance...

“As for the black executive, he is scared if you make a fool of yourself, it will be a bad reflection on him. So they always make the safest decisions. They choose IBM computer hardware because no one ever got fired for hiring IBM. It’s different with the young excitable white boy. He makes decisions, takes chances and gets promoted.

“All the corporate gigs I’ve got in the past 20?years I got from whites only. When it’s time for reviews, the black boy has done nothing spectacular and the pay increase is as unspectacular, and then he complains the company is racist.

“He then job hops. I meet him in the next company. It’s the same song, different band, and I know where he is going to end up.

“When the government introduced employment equity, the global corporates took all power away from the black executive. They introduced a new position – the ‘country manager’ – and changed all reporting lines.

“The white executive doesn’t really report to the ‘country manager’. He reports to London, Turkey – anywhere but Africa. They call it the ‘matrix system of reporting’. The country manager is a glorified ‘government relations manager’. His job is to lobby the government but not to run the business.

“The black executive is like the black salesman – they size you up. Once I went to buy a big shiny car. I had a problem with my then car and decided this was all nonsense and bought a big German machine. I walked into the showroom. All the black salesmen looked at me and got busy on their phones. I waited because I always want to give my business to the black salesman.

“Since I like giving my business to black people, I waited and waited until a white boy came to me and asked if he could help.

“I said: ‘Sure, I’ve come to buy this car.’ I then sat down and did the paperwork.

“It was only then the black salesmen started greeting me in Tsotsitaal, hoping the white boy wouldn’t understand and they would perhaps snatch the deal from him.

“To add insult to injury, the white boy called me and said he was going on a training course on the date of delivery. He could cancel the course if need be, but that was not his preference. Would I mind if he got one of his colleagues to deliver the car, and as an apology, he’d throw in a tank of petrol.

“I told him to go on his course. The day I went to pick up my car, you could see the black salesman wanted to weep because of the lost commission.

“The black executive can learn a lot from the executive in the parastatals. They make decisions. It is hard because they have procurement to deal with, but they are helping BEE. The government is trying to help BEE, but not the black corporate executive.

“He is too scared to lose his house, his car and the fees to pay for a private school.

“Deep down, he thinks he is lucky more than he is brilliant. So he doesn’t put himself to the test so he’ll never surprise anyone, least of all himself. The black salesman is too hungry to make time for the ones he thinks are dreamers. So he chases white customers, even if they are a mirage on the other side of the phone; while the black customer, his own brother, is standing there with a debit card: cash in the bank.

“Whatever you do,” the promoter said with his index finger pointing dead between my eyes, ‘don’t write this in your paper, you columnist’,” he emphasised as if writing a newspaper column was an evil act.

“I’ve got to go and dye my dreads. I have a gig tomorrow.”

Before I could ask who approved the gig, he clicked his fingers and declared: “Sharp.”

He was gone.

» Kuzwayo is the founder of Ignitive, an advertising agency

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