Tjatjarag: Another day, another black business council

2012-03-03 10:11

So off I went to Gallagher Convention Centre on Thursday morning – a new season, a new Black Business Council.

Except it felt quite old. Since 1999, I’ve attended three such gatherings where the leading lights and the emerging bulbs of black business come together and plot a way to storm the citadel.

The speeches were the same (Ke Nako – now’s the time); the leaders the same; the issues the same (the apartheid economy has been left untouched).

In fact Reverend Vukile Mehana, who opened the occasion, prayed for economic freedom in our lifetime and salvation for those (I think he meant white business) still in possession of ill-gotten gains who refused to share.

It was a beautiful occasion. From the car park that just dripped with shiny dark sedans to the most stylish gathering of people this side of the equator to the perfectly colour-coded table-settings.

It felt like a dipstick of success, but the messages of the gathered were those of failure, of marginalisation, of a people who had yet to find their place in the sun. I came away a little blue at the disjuncture between the image and the emotion.

How on earth had empowerment failed so spectacularly for so many years that this occasion was like Groundhog Day, the film where you are caught in a constant loop of a soap opera on repeat?

The failure of first generation black empowerment (where the financiers were the only ones who got rich) is certainly a factor.

The glass ceilings that Anglo-Saxon- and Afrikaans-owned businesses have erected appear shatterproof, if the equity and ownership numbers are to be believed. Access to capital is a perennial problem for big and small businesses.

As Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan noted, the occasion sounded as if we were back in the 80s before liberation. I felt as if the assembled constituents did not claim the victories that have witnessed massive social mobility and impressive asset accumulation by black South Africans.

This is the outcome of opportunities extended by the state and evidence of the industriousness of people presented with access and the occasionally level playing field.

If we are to pretend that nothing has changed, that all those Bentleys, Mercs, BMWs are mere mirages, then we consign black South African business to an omnipotent servitude, to never notching up evident success, to a permanent victimhood.

There are problems, yes. Big problems.

But there are also lessons learnt, fortunes made and hard debates to have.

How is it that a black mining company, Aurora, set the news agenda for the whole of 2011 for all the wrong reasons?

How is it that conditions can still be so awful at an empowered company, Implats, that holds the richest platinum fields in the world? One wants to see business lead these debates and for black leaders to lead business.

I don’t hold out much hope for the Black Business Council. Its goals are so limited and its vision so dated. Its obsequiousness to the state (about four Cabinet ministers were given long speaking slots) was painful to observe.

Anyway, I hope I’ll have to eat my hat one day.

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