Like the death toll over holidays, gender-based violence and Friday-night stabbings at shebeens, the failure to move the needle on employment equity has become that frustratingly stubborn issue that we seem to either not have the guts to tackle or not treat with the seriousness it deserves.
Labour and Employment Minister Thulas Nxesi was pulling out his nonexistent hair last week when he spoke during the release of the Commission for Employment Equity’s 2018/19 report.
The report showed that, despite the country having comprehensive legislation and regulatory tools to effect transformation in the workplace, movement is extremely slow and, in some cases, has gone backwards.
Read: White men still rule
The most startling findings, gleaned from information given to the commission by employers, is that 66.5% of top management jobs are held by whites, while Africans make up just 15.5% of this category.
Indian South Africans stand at 9.7% and coloureds at 5.3%.
Gender representation is also skewed, with men holding 76.5% of top jobs compared with the 23.5% held by women.
The report also showed that when it comes to senior management, whites (particularly white men) have been the biggest beneficiaries of recruitment, skills development and promotions.
What this obviously means is that the pattern is unlikely to change anytime soon.
There is clearly little appetite for transforming the workplace in the corporate space, even if this means simply complying with the law, never mind believing in the project.
Nxesi, who took over the department in May and was presenting his first report on this subject, promised to crack down on businesses that do not take employment equity seriously.
“We are going to be very hard on employers. We know some people will ask questions like: ‘Why do we only begin to be hard on employers when it is a time of crisis?’ The reason that we focus on employment equity is because we need to address the inequality that is deeply rooted. All statistics show that, as South Africa, we are doing very badly,” he said.
Mildred Oliphant, Nxesi’s predecessor, voiced the same frustrations and promised tougher action every time she presented this report.
Last year, she stated that it was “disturbing to note that there are still designated employers who would rather budget for fines and penalties than embrace transformation in the world of work”.
“What they forget is that there is a price to pay for not heeding the call for transformation; the call to address inequality in whatever form it presents itself. Ladies and gentlemen, inequality carries high economic, social and moral costs. Inequality is capable of undermining economic growth and social cohesion, inflating healthcare costs and driving up crime.”
The Black Management Forum (BMF) is setting up a legal fund that will be used for litigation to ensure that companies comply with employment equity targets.
According to the BMF, this fund will tackle companies that are guilty of “gross violations, derailing transformation in South Africa”.
The use of the term ‘gross violation’ may seem a little strong, but it is apt.
The appalling figures released last week show that the majority of employers, who happen to be white men, do not see employment equity as an imperative.
In the minds of many business owners, employment equity is rather an irritating requirement imposed on them by government.
Some even see it as reverse apartheid.
They would rather tick the boxes than enthusiastically embrace the transformation project. They naively and wrongly do not see the business case for it.
This despite business organisations vowing to do more to make sure that employment equity moves beyond compliance and encouraging businesses to see the economic value of making their workplaces diverse.
Reacting to the 2017 report, then Business Unity SA chief executive officer Tanya Cohen stated that, “unless we take meaningful steps so that our workforce reflects the broad demographics of our society at every level, we will miss the opportunity to leverage the full human resource potential that South Africa has to offer”.
Business Leadership SA has made similar noises, all to no avail.
It is now clear that the destruction of the state, the looting of the public purse and the corrosion of our morality were not the only consequences of the wasted decade.
South Africa also pressed the pause button on transformation.
The man who ran South Africa during that time had little interest in fulfilling the constitutionally mandated task of ensuring transformation.
During that time, the likes of Oliphant and the Commission for Employment Equity could scream until they were blue in the face, but employers did not give a hoot.
They just did not take the authorities seriously.
Other players in society were also distracted by the fight against corruption and state capture, and ended up taking their eyes off the transformation ball.
We have to get this vehicle back on the road.
Whatever efforts we put into rebooting the economy must be accompanied by an energised drive to make sure that the workplace is transformed.
Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves reading the same speeches and moaning about the same thing 25 years from now.