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A place where BEE is invisible

Fort Beaufort, about 100km from Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, is an example of a small town in a poor rural area where the mention of BEE is likely to have people scratching their heads.

The town has just about everything needed for survival. There are small and big businesses owned by both blacks and whites.

However, if you ask about BEE many respond with the question: ‘What’s that?”

Mlungisi Maci, a citrus and vegetable farmer at Balfour near Fort Beaufort, believes that a few people are practising BEE but without knowing it. ‘A couple of farmers in this area are black and they employ black people, but I cannot say we really follow the BEE procedure.”

Maci, who completed agricultural studies at Fort Cox College in Eastern Cape, has farmed for almost two decades. He has worked with black people since he started.

He believes another reason BEE is less obvious in Fort Beaufort is because ‘black people who own businesses employ their family members, particularly in top positions of the business. ‘I employ my brother as a supervisor and my sister as a bookkeeper because I want to help them.”

Fort Beaufort has few big businesses, such as construction firms, retailers — and a taxi industry that is not doing well, but surviving — and some smaller businesses such as hair salons and takeaway shops. These businesses often employ few people and as a result family members do much of the work.

Ntuthu Sola, a hair salon owner, said: ‘Fort Beaufort is a small town, and in most cases we think about keeping finances in the family so that we can all help with whatever needs to be done at home.” That, too, is the case with white-owned businesses.

Spar supermarket, one of the most successful businesses in the area, has a few black faces, but not in top positions. The owner of the supermarket, who preferred to remain anonymous, said: ‘Most people are not skilled in Fort Beaufort. If you employ someone you must provide training for them, which costs money, so in most cases we prefer to do things by ourselves.”

The lack of skills, according to the Spar owner, ‘makes it difficult for people to follow the BEE procedures, because as businesses we want to make a profit and employing people who are not skilled in big positions would be shooting ourselves in the foot”. Even so, he says, the firm does a little training.

‘There are a few people who show an interest in learning; as a result we take time to train them, for example to be supervisors.” Staff skills development is a key area of BEE and is recognised in government’s broad-based BEE strategy and the balanced scorecard.

‘In a small town like this there are no centres where you can take staff for training,” the supermarket owner says. ‘The government needs to work with businesses so that they can implement BEE properly.”

The taxi industry, which is one of the most visible businesses in the town, is viewed by many as BEE-oriented.

‘All the drivers and the assisting staff are black, so I would say this business is BEE-oriented. However, it is not well managed so we do not know whether we are practising BEE or not,” said taxi owner Xolani Nase.

Nase, who has been in the business for a few years, employs two drivers who in turn employ money collectors to whom they give tips at the end of each trip.

‘Business is not always good in this industry, especially in this town. It is a small town and we compete with private transporters, so it’s hard for us to improve our work or meet the BEE standards,” he said.

The aim of BEE is to undo economic inequalities between races brought about by the apartheid regime.

Looking at Fort Beaufort, redress is occurring at a snail’s pace and if it is an indicator of how fast BEE is being achieved in small towns, then there is still a long way to go.

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