Agents of change

From the dusty, crime-ridden streets of Gugulethu my generation learned the necessity for standing up for yourself against bullies who torment you simply because they can. We made sure they realised quickly that they could not. That was the age of great events and little men.

1994 came and went. Just as did 1912; just as did 1955; just as did 1961; just as did 1976; just as did 1990. Yet many of us are still trapped in one or other of these dates with a sense of nostalgic admiration. While acknowledging that each of these dates defines who we are as South Africans today, is it not time we focused more on what must be and less on what was?

The question we ought to ask ourselves—if I may be so bold as to count us all among the black elite—is this: what are we doing to change South Africa for the better—going forward? What are we doing to move from success to significance? What are we doing to help one another? What are we doing to ensure that we leave behind more than we found? Indeed, what are we doing to shift from being a mere black elite to being agents for transformation?

To help generate debate about these questions—hopefully on a national scale and for a period that spans more than just today—I want to focus on what in my view is the consummate challenge that has faced South Africa since the dawn of our democratic order. Can one have political independence that is worthy of any meaning, without economic independence? Can a nation pronounce itself free when it recoils from public discourse that affects its destiny and stability; when it abdicates to politicians the ability to think, reason and empathise?

This enquiry is not the exclusive domain of persons with socialist or Marxist leanings. John Stuart Mill, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and Alexis de Tocqueville each acknowledged that vast wealth conferred undue political power. Alexander Hamilton put the proposition thus: “A power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.” Who can argue with that?

Once a man’s will becomes subservient to the economic power of another, political rights become eminently meaningless. This is what Horace Mann, an American education reformer who lived between 1796 and 1859, sought to convey when he argued that political equality demands equality of economic and educational opportunity.

In an essay published in 1867 in Lectures and Annual Reports on Education, Mann expressed what all South Africans with means (and the black elite in particular) must heed if our country is to prosper so that we all experience a better life. He wrote: “If one class possesses all the wealth and the education, while the residue of society is ignorant and poor, it matters not by what name the relation between them may be called; the latter, in fact and in truth, will be the servile dependants and subjects of the former.”

The obvious answer lies in revisiting our wealth creation and redistribution policies. Broad-Based BEE is clearly not filtering through.

If the ultimate objective of BEE is to ensure that the country’s economy is controlled, managed and owned by black people (as is suggested by the 2007 Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Benchmark Report recently presented to the president), what good is the acquisition of a 26% equity stake in a white company, where you cannot effectively influence the company’s policy direction?

The answer also lies in clearly defining the national agenda. I don’t know about you, but I have no idea what agenda we are pursuing on which we are all agreed as a nation. National treasury, public works, the presidency and the trade and industry department seem (at least by their public utterances) to be pursuing an economic growth agenda. The Central Bank, on the other hand, in its preoccupation with inflation targeting, seems bent on enforcing frugality, which would tend to arrest robust activity to stimulate economic growth. What precisely is South Africa’s national agenda? Is it the skilling of the nation in priority skills to give it a competitive edge in the globalised economy, as India has done? Or is it economic growth with a view to bringing the marginalised black masses into the economic fold?

Is it ANC rule at all costs? Is it wealth redistribution? What is it? We, the black elite, should be at the forefront of defining the national agenda. Not the politicians.

The second and more important attribute of the black elite is influence—both political and business influence. The third is means. By that I mean things like “the mind to conceptualise”, “time to spare”, “energy to follow through” and “humility to stand back when the job is done”. You will notice that I have not mentioned “money”. The simple reason is that, in my view, money is a “nice-to-have” but not an indispensable attribute to qualify as elite in the context of this address.

I want to give my own spin to BMF president Jimmy Manyi’s oft-quoted disclaimer that BMF members are elite but not elitist and it is this: if you have influence and means, but you do not put these attributes to good use that advances black development and high levels of economic independence in the nation, then you are not an elite but an elitist who is comfortable with being the only “this” or one of the few “that”. 

Influence can be exercised in many ways that engender a transformational mindset and outcomes. The chief executive of South Africa Inc (or the relevant member of his board) can easily pick up the phone, call his counterpart or chairperson of, say, BHP Billiton or Sasol or Anglo-American and suggest the need for the training of 100 black and women mining engineers. The BMF would then provide the list of suitable candidates from its database and, Bob’s your uncle. A few years later South Africa is a few hundred black engineers to the good and there can no longer be talk of a shortage of black engineers to employ.

The power of influence lies in people feeling rather awkward about saying “no” to you.

Influence, not money, tends to get a lot done. There are large companies, awash with money, that need engineering skills. Some of them have government as a shareholder and have black elites in decision-making positions. Yet 74% of them still report in 2007 that the reason they cannot comply with employment equity targets is that there are no black skills to fill the positions. Now, if you consider that the Skills Development Act came into effect in November 1998, while the BBBEE Act commenced in January 2004, and the BEE codes even later than that in February this year, then surely we are not serious about transforming this economy.

It was eight years after the Skills Development Act came into effect before companies had to report on their compliance with the BEE codes. What happened in those eight years? We need to ask ourselves why the black elite who run these companies or who sit on their boards do not kick up a stink about this obvious inertia. Those of us who sit on these boards have the influence to make a huge difference. Why don’t we put it to good use? We need to identify the cause and deal with it decisively.

A director general can easily insist that his department’s procurement of 60% of services from black companies, or quantifiable skills development of 130 women and black structural engineers, be made part of his performance contract so that, if he does not meet his target in this regard, he faces demotion or a salary reduction. Alternatively, a Cabinet minister to whom the director general reports can be the one who insists that these targets be met. That is commitment to the national agenda of skills development and thus real sustainable empowerment that eventually results in economic independence. That is influence.

A chief executive of a large pension administration company or life company can influence his board to grant scholarships to suitable black and women candidates to pursue actuarial or other relevant studies, and then absorb them.

A middle manager at a finance company (such as Umsobomvu, Ntsika, or IDC) can influence his chief executive to provide seed finance to black entrepreneurs at rates that do not have the effect of strangling the very entrepreneurship it seeks to encourage, not with a view to buying a stake in an existing white company but with a view to starting their own business in competition with the white company. That is how you grow the economy by creating an environment for the mushrooming of more players in the market.

Vuyani Ngalwana is an advocate and the former Pensions Fund Adjudicator. This is an edited version of a speech he delivered to the Black Management Forum earlier this month

Client Media Releases

NWU specialist receives innovation management award
Reduce packaging waste: Ipsos poll
What is transactional SMS?
MTN on data pricing