Time to learn from the Afrikaners

2010-09-16 00:00

IT’S all quiet on the western front.

This refers to President Jacob Zuma’s Broad- Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) Advisory Council.

The council has met two or three times. Subcommittees were formed to review various aspects and make recommendations on all aspects of BBBEE.

But that’s it. We are not hearing anything more.

This may sound like too much to ask too quickly, but issues around BBBEE have become matters of urgency. Besides, an expectation was created when the council was announced. So, feedback of what- ever size or nature is absolutely necessary.

There is a negative underlying mood about Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) as the concept is fast becoming tarnished. People are at each other’s throats over who has benefited and how. There are myriad other problems.

There’s no doubt that some clarity is needed. People need to know what the rules are, whether they agree with them or not. People need to know the way forward.

Although some R200 billion has been spent on BEE transactions since the beginning, the government has officially admitted that the concept has failed to achieve its objectives. That’s precisely the reason this has to be treated with extreme urgency.

Yes, some people — a few — have made money, but BEE has failed to infuse a new economic energy. It has failed its own promise of a transformational economic revolution.

There is huge consensus that the idea is noble. But there is no consensus on the “how” of going about it properly. However, there has been a great deal of intellectual laziness and dishonesty about it.

There has been something of a pie-in-the-sky attitude and approach to it. Even fairly intelligent people have been confused about the concept.

The key is to work it backwards, properly. Look at the destination. That’s what the Chinese do. If the destination or objective is to empower previously disadvantaged individuals (PDI), it certainly has not happened for the reason stated above. The structure of it all is wrong because people have not adopted a rigorous approach or have simply been dishonest about it.

It is plain nonsense to suggest that by inviting 45 000 people, who do not even know each other, to a tiny transaction will empower them economically. This is why it has not happened in nearly two decades. In fact, it will never happen unless those in the forefront, like Zuma’s council, apply rigour to their thought and application.

There are only two countries in the world where economic empowerment, as a result of affirmative- action policies, has succeeded — Malaysia and South Africa during apartheid.

I know that the leadership, both in the government and business, has looked at the Malaysian model. All one has to do is assess exactly what made that model succeed. Yes, material conditions may not be exactly the same as South Africa, but please tweak and adapt.

The second option is to look at how the Afrikaners did it.

As soon as one talks about Afrikaners during apartheid, people want to plug their ears and run away. Please, do not look at the wrongs of apartheid. Rather look at the systematic and methodical fashion the Afrikaner leadership operated in 10 years before the National Party took over power. This is 10 years before 1948. It took a lot of thinking and rigorous application. Some of the institutions they built then are economic monuments today. Many of them were started from scratch and grown. Second and third-generation generation leadership and heirs have taken over the baton and are running with it, thank you very much.

These Afrikaner-owned enterprises contribute hugely to this country’s economy. They employ thousands of people of all races and religion. They pay billions in taxes and they have also created millionaires of some people, including non-Afrikaners, through their business dealings.

Yes, there are a small number of success stories, but blacks do not have any economic monuments to speak of.

This is the time to think. This is the time to take stock. We own the platform. Time is running out. We may regret it if we do not seize the moment.

When you run out of ideas, all you have to do is ask. Look at Singapore. When they were building the foundations of their productivity movement, they packed their bags and flew to Japan to study that country’s models. Singapore is a leader in global competitiveness today. I cannot brag on behalf of that country, but there is full employment in Singapore, a country with zero natural resources.

People, please, stop being superficial in your thinking when you lead us. Apply rigour. Just like the Afrikaners. We owe it to our children and those who left us behind.

We owe it to a child in Soweto, to a child in Langa, Nyanga, KwaMashu, Madadeni and Vosloorus.

We owe it to the Nelson Mandelas, to the Robert Sobukwes, to the Steve Bikos, the John Dubes, the Zeph Mothopengs and the AB Ngcobos.

Our people are suffering and April 27, 1994, might go down in history as being one of the most futile South African achievements.

We have been grappling with BEE for a long time now. We know what the problems are.

Let’s just get on with it. — Moneyweb.

• Sipho Ngcobo is former deputy editor of Business Report and ex-managing editor of Enterprise magazine. He has written for the Sunday Times and the World Paper in Boston and was employed by the New York Times group in the U.S.


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