Special Reports

Are you a chicken or an eagle?

COMMENT Vuyo Jack

Two birds illustrate what empowerment could become — and should not be.

Vuyo Jack, co-founder and chief executive of the black economic empowerment rating and research agency, Empowerdex

Native Americans tell a parable about the eagle and the chicken: once upon a time on a large mountainside there was an eagle's nest with three large eagle eggs inside. One day an earthquake rocked the mountain, causing one of the eggs to roll down to a chicken farm in the valley below. The chickens saw the egg and wanted to protect it. They put the egg among the chicken eggs. Eventually the eagle egg hatched and a beautiful eagle was born. The chickens raised the eagle the only way they knew how, like chickens.

The chickens's life involved eating seeds, insects and worms. Their movement was restricted to the farm. Even when the cats and dogs went for them teasingly, they would run away as a flock because they could not fly away. This was the accepted life, which lasts for five years, the normal lifespan of a chicken.

On many occasions the eagle would look up to the skies above and notice a group of doves flying over. He said to his chicken brothers: "I wish I could fly like those birds one day." His brothers laughed at him and said: "Get real man, you know that chickens cannot fly." He would always cower away with disappointment because he loved his home and family, but deep down something was missing. His eagle spirit cried out for more.

Don't be afraid
One day a big eagle was gliding in the sky and saw an unusual spectacle: an eagle playing with chickens. The big eagle ventured down to see what was happening. The chickens started running away, fearing that the big eagle was about to attack them. The big eagle went to the little eagle, who was trembling with fear, and asked him what he was doing there.

The little one answered that he was a chicken living with his brothers and begged the big eagle not to hurt him like the cats and dogs sometimes did. The response from the big eagle was: "You don't need to be afraid of me. We are the same. You are an eagle and not a chicken. You have to act with pride like the eagle that you are."

The little eagle did not believe the big eagle. So the big eagle went on to prove that they were the same by dragging the little eagle to a puddle of water that reflected their faces.

Still this was not enough to convince the little eagle. So the big eagle grabbed the little one by the neck and went to the roof of the farmhouse. He pushed the little eagle to the edge. The little eagle fell with a thud without using his wings. The big eagle, growing impatient, went down again to take the little one much higher up in the air. The big eagle then let go and the little one, fearing that he was going to die, started to feel his wings and began to fly.

His spirit also began to soar as he glided in the air. The glory of being an eagle was recaptured. The glory of eating fish and other mammals. The glory of living longer, over a lifespan of 20 years. The glory of fending for himself and flying long distances. The glory of hunting alone and with great precision. The glory of hard work and great self-reliance. The glory of earning everything himself, which ultimately gives him freedom and independence.

In contrast, the chickens rely on others to feed them and they do not have to put too much effort into things. Chickens enjoy the comforts of the chicken coop and the pleasure of playing around until they get slaughtered and turned into somebody's lunch. The chicken's life is guaranteed to end in forced death, whereas the eagle's life ends naturally.

Three main actors
The parable is applicable to the black economic empowerment (BEE) journey South Africa has taken. There are three main actors in this arena: white businesses, black beneficiaries and the government. The success or failure of BEE interventions relies on whether one takes an eagle's or a chicken's approach. Businesses over the years were trapped in the chicken's coop in their approach to BEE, and the reason provided was that there was an absence of rules and regulations that made their contributions difficult to quantify and score.

The Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment Codes of Good Practice changed that by providing a consistent way to measure a business' contribution. These codes are by no means perfect, but they provide a good framework within which to work.

Despite these rules and regulations, there are companies that still engage in chicken-type behaviour: they do things that will not meaningfully advance transformation. They take shortcuts and support initiatives that do not trickle down to the intended beneficiaries. Some even engage in complex fronting practices that undermine the entire broad-based BEE intervention.

On the other hand, we have companies that, over the past few years, have embraced the eagle mentality in relation to transformation. They see the long-term implication of why we need to do the right thing in order to grow and sustain the South African economy. They have come up with some breathtaking and innovative schemes that truly make a difference to the intended beneficiaries of broad-based BEE. They are willing to learn from the failures of some of their initiatives and seek improvements, even in the face of constrained resources. These companies have their hearts and minds in the right place and need to be encouraged to do more.

The beneficiaries of broad-based BEE also have the option of taking a chicken or an eagle mentality in how they use the opportunities given to them. Tenderpreneurship that solely seeks government business for its sustainability is of a chicken mind-set.

There is no additional value added by this approach, which is premised largely on knowing who is in power and being in their good books in order to get business. There is no real service rendered, because all the work is then subcontracted to people with the hardcore skills.

There is no enduring benefit in the beneficiaries gaining hardcore skills that will stand the business in good stead after the day inevitably comes when government business dries up.

The eagle approach of using the business opportunities to build sustainable black-owned enterprises has been taken up with success by black businesspeople such as Dr Anna Mokgokong, Joe Madungandaba, and the Mophatlane brothers, among others.

Under pressure to respond
On the government side, the eagle mind-set was prevalent when there was nothing in place and it had to lead by putting a framework together. This original eagle approach has seen growing buy-in by many stakeholders in the transformation process.

It was slow going initially but now it is backed by a great, growing momentum. However, given the fronting challenges of the chicken mind-set in some companies, government is under pressure to respond.

Sometimes the response from government risks being a chicken mentality, which can be a big threat to the sustainability of the entire transformation process. For example, we might be heading towards a Stalinist approach that is counterproductive to our progress thus far.

Furthermore, the current regulatory body of the verification industry requires interpretations of the codes that do not take into account context, and therefore result in untenable implications. For example, the ruling that black family trusts are not considered black even though the beneficiaries are all black boggles the mind. The basis for this ruling is that the trust deed does not restrict the discretion of the trustees to determine beneficiaries. Furthermore, the proportion of benefits that goes to the beneficiaries is not fixed up front.

The implications of this ruling are that the estate planning of black families is now in disarray and many BEE deals may need to be unravelled if the black families do not change their trust deeds. For transformation to work going forward, we need to inculcate and nudge people towards the eagle mentality. Companies need to appreciate the need for true transformation by designing and implementing initiatives that have a meaningful impact and achieve the objectives of broad-based BEE.

The beneficiaries of broad-based BEE should work hard and gain the required expertise and experience to have true economic freedom and economic independence. This can only happen when they give true service and add value by eschewing the chicken mentality of a free lunch, because that leads them to being lunches for other people who do add value.

The government's role must be to restore integrity in the process of transformation by not having a heavy hand at the one end, but also not allowing chicken-minded companies to get away with murder at the other. The country as whole needs that eagle mind-set to move us away from the limited chicken self-image we currently have.

Vuyo Jack is the co-founder and chief executive of the black economic empowerment rating and research agency Empowerdex

Although this article has been made possible by the Mail & Guardian's advertisers, content and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G supplements editorial team. It forms part of a larger M&G Most Empowered Companies supplement.

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