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Ntokozo Khumalo
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To Black Economic Empower or not to Black Economic Empower

19 January 2013, 14:24
When I wrote this article I prepared myself for the crucifixion as well as the praise that would probably come from two very distinct racial groups. But this is not about race matters but more about empowerment, and why I feel, although the Black Economic Empowerment model is flawed in many ways there are reasons why it may just be around for a long time. Despite what you, and you and I feel. Take this journey with me.

I am part of the lucky few in South Africa, there may be thousands or even millions of us really but in the greater economic schemes of things, I am part of the lucky few. Black woman who had both parents have a career, not just a job, and they were good at it too. I was introduced to affirmative action in the early 1990’s while my mother was climbing the corporate ladder in Human Resources. I remember how passionate discussions at the Saturday afternoon family braais would get heated with this uncle saying we need more than just Affirmative Action, the other screaming out kill the boers and the youngest of them all saying “why can’t we all just get along.”

It did not make sense to me back then. I had a white best friend (in rural natal where racism was still rife), went to a multi-racial school, and like some white people say about apartheid “lived a very sheltered life” so I had no idea what was really going on. The real South African situation was foreign to me. I asked “ So we just got out of apartheid, we promised to treat each other fairly, but know we are wanting to take away from other South Africans.”

And then the era of President Thabo Mbeki came around. Our economy seemed to be on the right track and it seemed the country had a leader in place that was either largely loved or could be easily tolerated.

Black Economic Empowerment is a program that was launched by the government in a bid to fix the inequalities of Apartheid. This would be done by giving previously disadvantaged groups (Black, Coloured, Indian and some Chinese) economic privileges previously not available to them.  Basically, I am guessing that BEE was meant to address issues that lead up to Apartheid.

An example is the Carnegie Commission on Poor Whites undertaken in 1932, which showed that nearly 30% of respondents lived like paupers.  According to one memorandum sent to Frederick Keppel, then president of  The Carnegie Corporation there was “little doubt that if the natives were given full economic opportunity, the more competent among them would soon outstrip the less competent whites”

The government of the time, in the interest of protecting its select few, developed ways and policies that would protect white businesses and white people in general.  Large scale agricultural programs were implemented to promote cultivation of corn and wheat to boost the farming sector. Also, through the state owned Industrial Development Corporation (The IDC) the government helped establish a solid local textile, pulp and paper industry as well as other state owned entities to producer fertilizers, chemicals and oil from coal. All of this privilege was reserved for South Africa’s white population.

So we have managed to play tit for tat since having the ANC in power. And maybe this tit for tat attitude is what is dividing the country. Maybe this is what is drawing the racial lines even darker and deeper into the sand. Black Economic Empowerment is not meant to be about this. It is not meant to be the huge Nqombothi pot every BEE fat cat goes to drink from. Because unlike the policies set up even before apartheid to protect white South Africans, BEE is meant to redress economic issues stemming from racial preference. It is flawed, but it is unfortunately all we have right now. Our government has shown even less signs of having any bright spark ideas to close the economic gap, except maybe promising more jobs – and failing. What we need to do is find ways to fix the issue not wish it away.

First, and this should be absolutely obvious, we need to shift our focus from ownership. Unless the person of color we are pushing for ownership has the drive themselves to start something. You cannot, and it makes no sense to even try - push someone into an ownership position when they have never even managed a team a day in a life. Do you know the pressure you are putting on this person and everyone else involved?

BEE has seven elements, why can we not focus on Enterprise Development for example? This element has large corporates sponsor black owned businesses financially, in mentorship or any other way that develops the enterprise.  If the corporate has the black owned business as a supplier BEE helps by saying help grow this business by paying them in 30 days instead of 90. Enter into contracts that have a longer term instead of using them just once etc.

These black business owners although coming from a disadvantaged, got up and tried something to become economically active South Africans. They did not run the streets with panga’s in hand chanting “kill the boer slogans” but pulled up their socks and said, despite my circumstance’s I am going to make this work. Surely we all agree that someone like this deserves some help?

I can hear screaming in anger “but why must they sideline the white people, I cannot get a job because they all go to these blacks” Well more often than not, the white people who scream these out are the ones spoken of in the Carnegie Commission - “little doubt that if the natives were given full economic opportunity, the more competent among them would soon outstrip the less competent whites”

I say this because whether we like it or not, the majority of the people that need economic recuperation in this country, and probably every single country in the world are black people. They are the ones living in squalor in vast numbers (not 30%). Whether we like it or not they are the ones (and not all) who sometimes need that unfair advantage just to catch up. It’s almost the same as career women saying I need to work twice as hard to be taken seriously in a male dominated world. Well, black people have to and have had to work 4 times as hard just to be even a level lower than their white counterparts. Let us be honest to ourselves about the honesty of this statement. The solution is fixing the approach to BEE, fixing the implementation and how it is sold.

South Africans kicking BEE at every turn should remember, there are multi nationals coming in that do not necessary mind BEE, they in fact sometimes understand it due to their own history. An example is an Irish man I meant not so long ago, doing well in South Africa and bringing in a lot of money into the country along with his other foreign friends. He uses examples of “The Trouble” between Ireland and Britain. And how he although white, understands and can sympathize with black South Africans. These are white people that are in South Africa and are fighting with honest BEE practitioners to make BEE as equitable as possible, so that our country can move forward. I do not think it should be about boasting power over other racial groups (especially white) but about moving the country forward economically.  Maybe let us put in the uncomfortable work as citizens of this country to ensure that when we do move forward we go together. Because when we fall, it will be together as well. 

Recent events have shown that if we do not address that issues that South Africa faces because of economic inequalities, we are in big trouble. We are at a stage where even black people are running to Australia. Are we going to allow ourselves to be a nation of runners or fixes? 

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