BEE: The Method to the Madness

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.
Profile photo of Kambani Ramano

Kambani Ramano

refusing to let history encumber him, Kambani has gone off to do something wonderful...

3 thoughts on “BEE: The Method to the Madness

  • December 13, 2010 at 8:20 pm
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    I was recently involved in a discussion regarding registered companies and tax avoidance where the issue of social responsibility came up. I believe the point I raised there is equally pertinent here, which is:

    “A Company’s primary focus is that of profit, not community support/upliftment. In a very real sense, they’re obligated to govern their business to the advantage of owners/shareholder and not necessarily that of the community.

    This, of course, does not preclude them from being socially responsible, it just not a absolute requirement nor focal point.”

    In contrast to a company, NGO’s/Charities/Churches/Government has the requirement of being socially responsible – blurring the lines between the two is tantamount to an absolute communist regime, which last time I checked was not in the interest of South Africa as a whole nor the ANC gravy train.

    That said, your article indeed seems to propose that all companies should be run more like NGO’s/charities, and less like a businesses: thereby effectively blurring the lines of their respective functions.

    Furthermore, I’ll also venture out to say that perhaps the focus should be less on the racial inequalities, and more on entrepreneurship (of all races) – after all, there was a time when impoverished Afrikaner whites were ALSO precluded from joining the traditional workforce (during English occupation) and they seemed to have had enough chutzpah to start their own business initiatives WITHOUT the help of legislation.

    Reply
    • Profile photo of Kambani Ramano
      December 15, 2010 at 5:33 pm
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      Thanks for the comment Julian. While I fully agree that it is a company’s primary obligation to be excellent in their business objectives, firstly, I think that it is imperative that they operate with sensitivity to the community and, secondly, I feel that you missed the point I was making about CSR.

      In the first instance, where companies have acted without any social conscience, the consequences for communities and the environment have been reprehensible. No business has the right to profit at the expense of the people or land that might be affected by its operations (think Nike’s child labour, Nestle using African mothers as lab rats, Pioneer Foods price fixing, etc.). The aim of business is not to the detriment of people, but to make a profit by providing a service. Greed unfortunately has twisted this and made profit at all costs the supreme end.

      Secondly, in no way do I propose that companies be run like NGOs. I was merely providing a critique of some of the shortcomings of CSR, in particular. If my reading of my article is correct, I have not proposed that businesses be run like NGOs at all. Instead, what I noted was that CSR, by virtue of its ethical implications, has been a positive step for business.

      Finally, I also feel that entrepreneurship is the way forward. Let’s, however, not mistakenly conflate histories when considering this point. The oppression that the Afrikaans people were subject to was very different to the oppression that both they and the English subjected the different indigenous groups to.

      Finally,

      Reply
  • December 16, 2010 at 12:56 am
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    Hi Kambani,

    Thanks for replying, it’s always refreshing to engage with authors (as opposed to being mere receptacles of their ideas/opinions).

    I will, albeit hesitantly, agree with your point that in some instances (and I stress the word some) outside business (be it foreign, or simply from another province or tribe) has been detrimental to communities. I can understand the point you make about Nike, Pioneer and Nestle; However, I cannot connect that argument with locally run/supported businesses. In instances where directors/employees/managers/consumers live within the geographical area of the company, I would have to say that most companies act with noteworthy CSR.

    They way I understood your article was that you connect CSR with BEE; which, by implication, entails that a company can only truly have a CSR if they cater for the previously disadvantaged. As such, the very policy of CSR they’re trying to implement would be doomed from the very start as it’ll be race-based, and not on a community as a whole (irrespective of race).

    While I disagree with your point on the differences/similarities between English occupation and Apartheid, I’ll leave it for another time altogether as we’ll risk going off-topic 🙂

    Thank you in advance for taking the time to read my replies…

    Reply

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