Phosa: Is BEE working for black lawyers?

African National Congress (ANC) treasurer general Mathews Phosa has called for an improvement in the country’s black economic empowerment (BEE) policy.

Addressing delegates to a three-day summit on commercial law opportunities held at the University of the Witwatersrand on Tuesday evening, Phosa — who is an attorney by trade — urged the legal profession to consider whether the current BEE “framework” is “functional” and whether it is assisting emerging black entrepreneurs.

The summit was organised under the auspices of the Wits Law School’s Nelson Mandela Institute and was mainly aimed at addressing the dearth of black law firms in the commercial law space in South Africa.

“Does it [the BEE policy framework] substantially promote profitable black [and] white partnerships?” Phosa asked his audience.

In keeping with his recent theme of good corporate governance, Phosa said legal professionals should exercise “high levels of discipline” and avoid “tokenism and fronting” in business deals.

“Fronting” generally refers to claiming falsely to be a majority black-owned company, have BEE ownership in a company or have black staff occupying top management positions.

Speaking in the presence of Constitutional Court Deputy Judge President Dikgang Moseneke, who is on a four-month sabbatical at the university, Phosa said that judges are protective of their territory and, in an apparent allusion to the Scorpions debacle, called for the protection of the separation of powers.

“I am not only pointing to separation of powers between judiciary, the executive and the legislative branches of government, but also instances where institutions are created which are given powers that could be interpreted as in conflict with the principles of separation of powers,” said Phosa.

The days of legal professionals waiting for business to “walk through the front door”, according to Phosa, are over. He urged such professionals to engage strongly in “lobbying” with “sakekamers [chambers of commerce]”.

“I am saying to you, you are not lobbying enough, you are not reaching out enough, you are using the old method of sitting in the office and hope that because they see you in the street carrying a gown, they will respect you because you are a lawyer,” Phosa challenged his audience.

He urged the black legal profession to “fish” for opportunities within areas such as chambers of commerce, the master’s office at a high court, regional land-claims commissions and within black communities.

At the conclusion of his talk, Phosa had his audience in stitches when he related a story about how former president Nelson Mandela always used to complain about a lack of ambition on the part of his “black comrades”.

“People from minority groups [Mandela said] are not ashamed to knock and say, ‘Can we have coffee … I want to be the minister of justice,'” explained Phosa to roars of laughter.

He reminded the audience of the fact that he still runs his own law firm in Mpumalanga, and said he follows his own advice by doing the types of work he is recommending.

“So this shyness, this modesty, is going to take you nowhere except to hunger,” he concluded.

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