R&B and soul fans will remember the O’Jays singing: ”You say I gotta do more, do more, a little bit more, how much more? How much more do I have to do to show that I love you?”
The song comes to mind when I consider black people’s relationship with business. Maybe it is about the power relationship between the establishment and black people, in which the latter seem to be temporary sojourners. My sense is that business expects blacks to change more than it is prepared to itself.
Maybe this power comes from control and access to resources, sheer numbers and the right to confer approval. Whatever it is, it is not doing transformation any favours and black people have to examine their complicit role in this.
For example, there was speculation in the press about a succession plan at a bank. The debate concerned the merits of black candidates and whether they would be accepted by certain stakeholders or interest groups.
It reminded me of a response I received from a black shareholder when I asked him about the merits of a newly appointed chief executive of his company. He said the analysts liked the appointment, which was reflected in the share price. The share price has receded since and I wonder what the rationalisation would be now.
My point is that the fear of a specific group’s reaction to an appointment — rather than optimism about the contribution black leadership can bring — is foremost in the minds of decision-makers.
Black candidates have to try to win the approval of these elites, while they do not have to move an inch. This makes transformation a one-way stream and it is assimilation.
Is the establishment fearful of black leadership?
Fear can be a good thing — if we are committed to business and there is a convergence of values, interests and aspirations, we would be fearful of anything that affects business negatively.
Fear is negative when prejudice about ”others” informs a superiority complex and expects ”others” to assimilate to a particular way before there is any confidence in their abilities. It makes Nolitha Fakude, Phumzile Langeni, Trevor Manuel, Phuthuma Nhleko, Philisiwe Buthelezi and so on convenient exceptions.
From my perspective there are three potential interventions that could begin to untangle this mess.
Factors of assessment in codes of good practice (COGP) and the financial sector charter:
As much as these are doing a good job to put business under pressure to transform, pivotal problems are left unchallenged. We believe that if we meet the requirements of the charter and COGP, problems will go away. But if we do not put measures in place to deal with racism and sexism, efforts will always fall short of creating the right environment.
Impotence among black shareholders:
When black shareholders became significant players in business there was hope that different kinds of questions would be asked of business. Now we seem uncomfortable or embarrassed to ask questions about changing the social environment in which business operates.
Young people and seasoned black executives remain largely unchanged. The environment is polite and inoffensive. African paraphernalia is sometimes used as decor, but no overt or positive actions are taken to deal with the past and create a new future.
Black shareholders remain quiet and are shocked when ”the establishment” shows no confidence in black people.
Fool’s paradise for aspirant and black executives:
There is a tendency among ambitious black business people to dissociate themselves from ”issues” and to see themselves as immune to the effects of unfair prejudice. This can be as a result of the desire to show they can tough it out. It could be a response to fears of being labelled as having a ”chip on your shoulder”.
Remarkably, when problems arise that undermine that ambition, it becomes a ”black thing” rather than a ”me thing”.
It is difficult under these circumstances to mount a concerted effort to rid business of unfair prejudice. Black people have to jump through too many hoops to win the confidence of the establishment. The effort to transform has to be wholesome, visionary and strategic.