Rupert's privileged myopia

Johann Rupert
Johann Rupert

MULTIBILLIONAIRE Johann Rupert is reported to have said that “radical economic transformation is a code word for theft”.

He was speaking on the sidelines of his company’s (Richemont) annual general meeting in Geneva on September 13.

When I heard his comment, I took to Twitter, like many South Africans do when aggrieved, and said: “He’s got the nerve. People like him flippantly disregard our fractious past and polarise our society further. Yandinyanyisa [he makes me sick].”

Rupert needs no introduction. Forbes magazine estimates his personal net worth at in excess of R80 billion. The companies he is invested in and has influence over are worth 15% of the JSE.

So what he says matters and it either represents what many of his ilk believe or influences their thinking and beliefs.

He holds so much influence in society that one would have expected him to use his voice for the betterment of the country, rather than to add to its polarisation.

Remember, his family, in particular his father, built their wealth on the back of low wages and exploitation of black people in this country.

He and his family enjoyed privileged protection and support from the racist apartheid regime. He, of all people, should know better.

One could easily dismiss this as an irrational spur-of-the-moment comment. However, the reality is that there is growing anti-transformation sentiment in the country.

The transformation gains made thus far are being reversed and the opponents of transformation are emboldened and openly expressing bigoted views.

It started with disgraced former Standard Bank economist Chris Hart, who likened black empowerment to an entitlement problem. Now, radical economic transformation is “theft”.

The audacity of these people to stain and delegitimise a genuine cause and black empowerment is disconcerting.

In my mind, their plan is very clear – once the agenda of socioeconomic transformation has been undermined, no one will want to be associated with it and it will collapse.

This is a repeat of the machinations we saw during the struggle against apartheid – information peddling was used to dismiss the struggle as nothing but a “swart gevaar” and a “rooi gevaar”.

South Africans, both black and white, rejected these concepts and so they will similarly reject the agenda of delegitimising radical economic transformation.

South Africans will dismiss Rupert’s theory and ask how it is possible that he can’t care about and be bothered by the widespread poverty that stares us in the face every day.

The latest Stats SA data show that 30.4 million South Africans (about 55.5% of the population) are living in poverty, earning less than R992 a month. The number is increasing.

They will ask how he can’t be bothered by rising racial inequality caused by racially skewed income distribution, where the average household income of a black African is R69 000, compared with R300 000 for whites, according to Stats SA.

While whites comprise only 10.3% of the economically active population, they occupy 70% of top management positions in this country.

They will ask how he cannot be bothered by the rising unemployment in this country; that, despite economic growth, albeit low, there has been no corresponding employment creation.

The unemployment rate is 36.4%, according to the expanded definition, and we all know that most of these unemployed people are black.

How can this not bother Rupert?

They will ask how a genuine attempt at reversing this anomaly can be described as theft. How can any rational person honestly believe that, when we want to change this situation, we are driven by nothing more than a desire to steal?

Almost a quarter of a century after political liberation, we have to contend with these realities. Is it then not obvious why black people, who are marginalised, are agitated by the system?

The call for radical economic transformation is informed by these realities.

Nongovernmental organisation Oxfam, in a 2013 report, states: “Extreme wealth and inequality are economically inefficient, politically corrosive, unethically and socially decisive.”

And so, we cannot tolerate men like Rupert, who are not bothered by these levels of inequality that are unethical and socially divisive.

The continuation of the privileged position he holds, while the system continues to exclude and marginalise black people, does not give him a right to articulate such a derogatory comment.

In this country, we decided against retribution and chose reconciliation.

In building this nation, the least one would expect is that the privileged would contribute to the future of this country by helping to build social cohesion.

Social cohesion is premised on socioeconomic justice and equality.

Its pursuit is a noble cause and it gives Rupert and many privileged white people who benefited from apartheid and its exclusionary policies an opportunity to redeem themselves.

It’s an opportunity they unfortunately continue to miss. I hope one day they will get the message and that it won’t be too late.

The timidity with which we implement transformation is what gave rise to the call for radical economic transformation.

The failure of the state, the private sector and society at large to transform this economy is a recipe for disaster.

Radical economic transformation is not a code word for theft, neither is it a Zuma-Gupta initiative.

Radical economic transformation is a morally just tool designed to create sufficient material conditions upon which the South African economy will work for all its citizens, changing the trajectory of black marginalisation and creating a shared future with equal access to economic opportunities.

We strongly believe that South Africa is a low-growth performer purely because of the oligopolistic structure of the economy emanating from the apartheid capitalist system.

The foundation of this economic structure and system favours the current dominant players such as Rupert, and is disadvantaging small operators and new black entrants.

The future of South Africa’s growth lies with small and medium-sized enterprises.

When there is a high concentration of a few large entities in any economic sector, which is characteristic of the South African economy, smaller black businesses in particular are crowded out.

You cannot grow an economy in that environment, so we need to radically transform its structure.

We believe that, until we tap into the diverse skills, knowledge and talent of all South Africans, we cannot build this country so that it can compete equally with other nations of the world.

We need to unleash the collective potential of all citizens by radically transforming the economy so we can be the best we can be among great nations of the world.

As the Black Business Council, we have taken it upon ourselves to unpack the concept of radical economic transformation.

We have convened an economic summit under the theme Radical economic transformation: a pathway to economic emancipation, which will be held on September 29.

The idea is to demystify and repurpose this concept into a tool to transform our economy into one that is inclusive, responsive, and capable of high levels of growth and employment creation.

The outcome of this summit will be a radical economic transformation blueprint, which will be used to lobby and advocate change in the public and private sector.

Johann, you are invited!

* Dumisani Mpafa is the head of policy at the Black Business Council and deputy president of the Black Management Forum


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