Let me start with a moot point: it is government’s mandate to govern. In my view, one of the ways in which government fulfils this mandate is through the creation of an environment in which all people can prosper. This goal is achieved by the executive’s exercise of executive power— creating and enforcing just laws being key to this process. In the economic sector, this would mean that government endeavours to create an environment in which each person involved in the sector can participate on a level playing field, and is also protected from ills like corruption, on the one hand, and discrimination, on the other. In a country with our political history (and in a world where, for the most part, blacks are still treated as the most inferior of human beings, suitable only for menial tasks— unless, of course, you are one of those “different” blacks who is accepted into higher circles because of trivial things such as an eloquent command of the English language; which, if I may further extend this tangent, is really a re-assertion, albeit it in subtler forms, of colonial ideals), the ideas that informed economic practice in the past, as well as the mechanisms that built and drove the economy, must be interrogated, dismantled and redeemed, much like what was done with the old prison on Constitutional Hill, in order for our national project to succeed. Sometimes old monuments must be completely demolished and redeemed before we can move forward into the new. This has not happened with the South African economy. I would not recommend that we throw ourselves into such a radical programme. What, instead, the government has opted for has been a measured, gradual introduction of change through the promulgation of BEE regulations. To me, the logic behind this course of action is sound. There was a need to open the economy up to non-white – but more importantly, black – men and women, so laws were drafted in order to achieve this. If the predominantly white business community were honestly willing to embrace the changes that came with democracy, they would have opened the doors of their companies to qualified, competent black graduates a long time ago. Those companies with real foresight would have prepared themselves to, in the long term, become workplaces more representative of the nation’s demographic than fortresses of white supremacy. In reality, however, resistance to and criticism of change have been standard practice. The same argument is always reverted to when the current order of practice is questioned: “there are not enough competent black graduates.” This begs the question: are all the black graduates incompetent and incapable of doing a job properly? Are there no incompetent white people in the workplace? Since when does your skin colour automatically mean that you will be a better employee than someone of a darker pigment? The reality on the ground is that things are not changing. Even though there are many blacks graduating every year, non-blacks (whites, asians, indians, coloureds, and anyone else who is not black ) are still getting job preference. Whites are still earning higher salaries than their black colleagues in the same office. Whites remain comfortably in power while blacks still have to fight to be treated with dignity and respect, when in theory we all agree that everybody is worthy of these things. Let me dispel a myth about the swart gevaar that is apparently invading the workplace and depriving the country’s non-black graduates of jobs. You will often hear white students say that their chances of getting jobs have been diminished by the new BEE regulations. The truth is that it is black graduates that are not being hired. According to the Graduate Unemployment Report compiled by the Development Policy Research Unit of the the School of Economics at the University of Cape Town, 84.9% of the country’s black graduates (holding either degrees or diplomas) were not employed when they entered the job market between 2000 and 2005. This is startling when compared to the 10.5% of their white counterparts. What is most troubling about these statistics is the fact that unemployment rates among black graduates have increased since 1995, whereas among graduates of all other skin colours they have decreased. Take note here: black graduates are not unemployable, they are unemployed. The next time someone says that there is a skills problem in South Africa, I might hit them over the head with a thick wad of CVs and the rebuttal that there is an integrity problem in the economic sector. To highlight that it is not all doom and gloom, the rise of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been a glimmer of light on the horizon. CSR is good and it has its place. I, however, don’t believe that it is the full solution to this problem. To date, CSR has focused on the issues surrounding poverty and sustainable business, not race relations. It does not address the fact that those looking to make a dignified living by applying their trade – and not just receiving a handout – are hindered in their progress because, to put it bluntly, in many ways Apartheid is not over. As a matter of fact, on some levels CSR is another form of the destructive practice of paternalism that was a trait of the relationship between the oppressed and the (liberal) oppressor in the past; that is to say, CSR reinforces the unequal and false power relationship between the supposedly weak and their strong saviours. It is a lie that the poor cannot help themselves. I have no doubt that a helping hand has the potential to be life changing. A brief glance, however, at the lives of all those who have lifted themselves from poverty to places of honour in society indicates that it is not impossible to transcend adverse circumstances, it just requires resolve, hard work and perseverance. CSR can be like aid and, as such, is beneficial but not essential to the improvement of the world. What is of utmost importance is social justice. True social justice involves more than doing nice things for those who are less fortunate than their “kind benefactors”. What makes them less fortunate, anyway? Material wealth? Is material wealth the sum total of the human experience? Is it impossible to have an enriched life without it? No, it is not impossible. True social justice involves a meeting of hearts and hands. It means venturing outside of comfort zones in order to touch, in a meaningful way, the lives of those that a company’s social arm hopes to uplift. It is a sacrifice that says, “You are more than a project to me. You are a person worthy of the same dignity and respect as I am.” BEE would be unnecessary in a society where the dignity of each individual is highly and equally esteemed. Until that environment is South Africa’s reality, the government will have to continue to intervene in the way business operates in order to ensure that the marketplace does not remain an exclusive domain.
- Companies and Social Responsibility
- Trial By Media and Public Opinion