Zama Ndlovu

Responsibilities of the black elite

2012-08-29 11:56

Zama Ndlovu

The moment Cyril Ramaphosa’s non-executive at Lonmin entered the general public’s consciousness, the disappointment in the ANC deepened.

The founder of the National Union of Mineworkers and the key Codesa negotiator was on the wrong side of situation that symbolised the worst of South Africa’s income inequality gap. There was clearly an expectation that the presence of a top six NEC member on that board would equate to a meaningful difference in the lives of ordinary workers. Are the altruistic expectations on Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) beneficiaries fair, and if so, why are they not explicit?

Moral obligation

Just last year, after the BEE deal between Lonmin and Shanduka, Mining Weekly reported that “Shanduka’s entry has since set Lonmin on a course of wanting to transform itself “into a model for fairness and equality in the new South Africa”’. The BEE act was meant to define the exact criteria to help (white) business drive fairness and equality in this country, yet the act did not define expectations on the black beneficiaries of the process.

Many black people speak of a “moral obligation” that BEE beneficiaries have to ensure that their empowerment trickles down to others. Yet the current perceptions around empowerment deals, black business and the infamous “tenderpreneurs” are at an all-time low. Yesterday The Star reported that BEE companies “are forced to provide poor-quality goods at inflated prices to recoup the costs of paying mandatory kickbacks to corrupt politicians and government officials”.

A number of businessmen told the paper that they were regularly expected to pay money to “the ANC, its leagues, the SACP or even opposition parties in charge of a province or municipality”.

Spread the wealth

In this environment which requires effective transformation, the main government tool has turned into an enrichment scheme. Rather than drive entrepreneurship and redistribution, it has made political connectedness the most critical asset for economic enrichment in the country, for both public and private sector individuals.

But more importantly, none of those individuals are under any obligation to spread the wealth further.

But even looking at less sinister situations, one must ask how we thought the presence of a black director, partner, senior manager etc, would practically lead to more “secondary” redistribution of wealth. How powerful is a Cyril Ramaphosa in a board of directors full of white men? Could his presence really lead to a fundamental shift in the values of a capitalist venture that would result in every worker being paid fairly? 

After the shootings at Lonmin many comments about how cheap black lives are and how black people are still puppets of a white agenda flew around. There are also other schools of thought that define this as purely as class struggle and not a matter of race. However, it’s more likely a matter of both.

Unfortunately the black elite have not fully owned its responsibilities in ensuring that there’s redistribution of wealth. There certainly can’t be the same expectations on a black business owner who starts a business from the ground, and a politically connected individual who acquires shares through a fancy structured debt.

A clearer roadmap

However, the black elite cannot completely absolve itself from this responsibility on the hopes that consequences of revolution would only be faced by an ineffective government and “greedy” white business. There is a significant black middle class and a large enough black capital class for a more coherent strategy that does not rely on government policy alone. Also, there must be a clearer roadmap, targets and measurements not only for government, but for ALL businesses.

Once the black elite accepts some responsibility for redistribution, a stronger focus on creating and more importantly, supporting these businesses will allow for black business to have more power in influencing the pace of redistribution. It’s important that black economic empowerment be looked at beyond government intervention, and the role of the empowered be clearly articulated.

Singing the rhetoric of the evils of white capital from our 7-series BMWs won’t fool anyone. If we allow ourselves to let this country burn, as part of the economic elite, we will burn with it.

- Zama Ndlovu is a management consultant, managing director of Youth Lab, writer, activist, and anything else you'd like her to be. Follow her on Twitter: @JoziGoddess

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Read more on:    cyril ramaphosa  |  lonmin unrest

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