What are black professionals worth?


The story of how former president Jacob Zuma had to hustle to pay his lawyers reminds me of the recurrent story about how industries and individuals seem reluctant to pay a fair price for black professional expertise.

A few weeks ago, The Star newspaper reported on a Johannesburg school where salaries appeared to be racially based.

In one case, a white groundsman earned more than R12 600, while his three black colleagues received about R7 500.

In the administrative office, a white clerk received at least R23 000, while her black colleague earned R11 400.

The Joburg school story faded away like that effervescent drink best known for sorting out tummy trouble.

In South Africa, whites earning more than their black colleagues, even when doing the same job and with the same qualification, has become normal.

It is interesting, but not really shocking any more.

Many black professionals across sectors live with the reality that they are forever second-guessed, whether they come from so-called bush colleges or speak “with an accent”.

Black professionals in general, and black female professionals in particular, always need to prove their worth. And as they do, they dare not pronounce a word wrong or use a wrong preposition.

Black artisans and artists are forever having to negotiate their price downwards because anything that requires one to use their hands – as opposed to their minds, while sitting at a desk – is undeserving of more than a few rands.

This is not to say that we should not be outraged. We should be.

Still, it came as a shock when Zuma suggested that he, too, believes in the racial hierarchy of paying for professional services rendered.

Speaking outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court in KwaZulu-Natal, where he was arguing for a stay of prosecution, Zuma said: “When the new government came in, it said it won’t pay the money. I must sell my hat, my socks ... to pay for legal fees. They don’t want me to have lawyers. They are ganging up on me, but I won’t cry, I am not scared of anything. I let go of white lawyers; I am left with black lawyers because they will do the work even if they don’t have money.”

The message is very clear. When there was no issue with how much it would cost, Zuma hired white lawyers.

Now that there is, he has hired black lawyers “because they will do the work even if they don’t have money”.

In his own words, he has advocate Muzi Sikhakhane SC because “they don’t want me to have lawyers”.

Zuma might have thought he was, as the young people would say, “throwing shade” at his successor, but he ended up showing himself to believe that black expertise and labour are undeserving of the top dollar.

I am happy to grant Zuma and his supporters the benefit of the doubt and accept that he did not mean it “that way”.

The record reflects, though, that Zuma had used white advocates almost exclusively until his fall from the throne.

Furthermore, Zuma and his supporters have crafted him as a champion of radical economic transformation, ostensibly aimed at improving the economic plight of black people.

Ironically, black lawyers in 2017 marched in the streets of Pretoria, demanding that Zuma intervene in what they saw as unfair and inequitable briefing patterns in favour of their white colleagues.

The Black Lawyers’ Association called on Zuma to establish a judicial commission of inquiry into the root cause of why government, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and municipalities continue appointing white male legal practitioners above their black and female counterparts.

This commission never happened. Now we can guess why not.

Read: Zuma lawyer: Just a loan from a friend

When he was still Judicial Service Commission spokesperson, advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza criticised the government for its failure to procure the services of black advocates, saying this was driving them from the profession.

Ntsebeza said that government used mainly white law firms and advocates such as David Unterhalter SC and Jeremy Gauntlett SC, making them out to be “superhuman”.

This was in 2013 and Zuma was president. Incidentally, Unterhalter is appearing on behalf of the National Prosecuting Authority in the latest State vs Zuma case.

It is not just about getting the financial benefits of being briefed by the state. Professional expertise grows as the scope of work expands.

To deny black professionals opportunities is to deny them the chance to develop much-needed skills.

In the event that your rejoinder here is that Zuma has the right to hire whomever he believes is best qualified for the job, I agree.

Yet we must be careful to hear the implicit statement that Zuma’s record shows that until now – meaning, until he has had to pay out of his own pocket – it was white advocates he believed were best for the job.

If you claim to be a champion of BEE and claim you are being persecuted for being pro-black, it would be nice if you put your money (and government money, if it is in your power to do so) where your mouth is and not settle for black talent when you have no other option.

Otherwise, you insult black people when you treat them as a cheap afterthought who do not even mind not getting paid.

Moya is an independent journalist and a former editor of The Mercury and The Witness.


How should this racial hierarchy of paying for professional services be eliminated?

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