Screwed by BEE

I clearly misunderstood Marlise and, no doubt, the rules of the game. You see, Marlise had started and managed a successful electronic equipment business for nearly a decade in a neighbouring country and was trying to establish herself in South Africa.

So through common contacts, she eventually identified the right entrepreneur she would want to partner with to create a BEE company — me! From what she was told, I was a self-made businessperson, with at least seven years’ experience in business, a great networker, especially with the government and looking for new investment opportunities.

And thus the ball started rolling and meetings happened. At first Marlise did not have a problem in changing her company name to adopt mine, which was as you may have guessed it, African, and very politically correct.
It did not matter that Marlise did not understand what it stood for, let alone bothered about how to pronounce it.

Things quickly went awry. Marlise wanted me to be chairperson and take over business development, nothing more, nothing less. I waffled about how important it was for me to take over a strategic and meaningful operational role like, say, managing director. The deal fell through. I am still very poor today.

Black economic empowerment has gone full-circle since the first days it was mooted in the early 1990s. During the talks about talks, it became clear that the next government was likely to be a majority black one. So white business started watching closely who the big movers and shakers were in African National Congress circles with whom they could partner to create “new South African” companies.

And so it came to pass. Any idiot in business knew that if you were going to do business with the government — one of the biggest spenders — you needed to know the right people.

But white people had spent the years funding successive apartheid governments and had not created friends with the ANC in Lusaka or London. So they had to start from scratch, creating new relations with the new head niggers in charge.

The brief was clear: “Join our board or become our consultant so that we look good at Shell House.” Names such as Eugene Nyathi and other Johnny-come-latelies come to mind here.

Once people such as Nyathi were exposed for being fakes, many purists who could not stand the embarrassment of being called tokens, started insisting on acquiring “real” shares rather than only seats on the boards. It did not matter that they did not have money to buy those shares.

Somebody had to find a way. So, a new concept of “paper shares” was born where people owned shares they did not own, or owned shares they could only own in the future or such confusing concepts that only lawyers discovered every time the relationship soured. Remember the stories of the ails? Nail, Rail et cetera. Clearly some of them had to fail.

When this proved to be another failure, we moved to the real stuff.

Financial institutions started funding proper deals. But the “money was too expensive” and only a few people could borrow. And thus was born a concept of black elite empowerment, where only a few politically connected people were seen to be the ones getting deals because, for reasons unbeknown to us, financiers were willing to fund them, but not the rest of the wannabes who tried to break into the game. The names were now unashamedly African, aggressive and descriptive: Safika, Mvelaphanda, Tiso, Mathomo, Matodzi and others.

Today the game has moved to what we now know as broad-based empowerment. The big players are still getting the deals, but they go further to make sure that other groups who do not get easy access — the disabled, employees and community groups or trusts — are included. This seemed to pacify the critics, but not so those BEE players who are not regarded to be big and are visibly not disabled, terribly poor or interested in being regarded as community-based. Now the animal kingdom that cares for its kind is in fashion: Amabubesi (lions), Elephants, Izingwe (leopards) and what next, Izinja (dogs)?

This has resulted in us going back full-circle. Now Marlise is approaching Matigari Holdings, wanting a black partner as long as the latter attaches its name to the business and opens the doors, but doesn’t interfere with the day-to-day operations.

But sitting in two meetings recently, the cloud was moved from my silly idealistic, utopian eyes once and for all.

In the first meeting Steve opined: “BEE is about being screwed on the backside. The bigger the bending the better the rewards.” Tough as this is to swallow (pun intended) Steve convinced me that the biggest principle about BEE was black people using their melanin, occasionally their skills and mostly their networks, to validate white capital and for that they were getting the right rewards. In the end, everyone is happy. White business is guaranteed its future riches and continued control of the economy, black players finally buy that German sedan and, hopefully, the masses gain from broad-based deals or social corporate investment donations.

Jabu further counselled: “Even if all they want is a token black, go in and try to change them from within. If you fail, you quit and they pay you for it.”

Moral of the story: in the game of BEE you get screwed, whether you are in or out. And we don’t want to legalise prostitution!

Ramotena Mabote is chairperson of Matigari Holdings

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