Setting the tone for the future

I am banking on Ferial Haffajee to be forgiving if I am using her views in a Mail & Guardian article about empowerment in media in vain or erroneously. She is quoted as saying: ‘They mustn’t think that black ownership is going to be sycophantic and patriotic — that if you have more black ownership, the media agenda is going to change.”

Elsewhere in the same article another editor remarked that in five years of working for his newspaper he has never been told to do anything by any shareholder. It seems to work well in the media, judging by the positive views of the editors.

In other sectors it is a huge problem.
This is so because there are expectations that black shareholders will affect the strategic direction of the business they are invested in.

Transformation is economic redistribution as well as setting the tone for the business going forward. This is a corrective action because historically business has catered for narrow interests. This is done so that the sustainability of the business is enhanced going forward.

Furthermore, the elimination of unfair discrimination has to be effected. Economic redistribution can happen on the quiet in payments of dividends to equity partners, which is always shrouded in complex formulae.

But issues of strategic direction and undermining racism and sexism are an emotive and engaging aspect of the package and generally strategic BEE partners have failed dismally in these areas. It calls on us as such partners to engage with both black and white staff in the businesses in which we are invested.

In my experience this engagement has been ad hoc, informal and mostly cursory. It is as if the black shareholders are embarrassed about their status and thus the egg dance. It is important that we remember how and why we were chosen to be partners to white business and that the discounts or facilitation we received were intended to expedite the transformation process by making it easier for us to buy into these companies.

Our active involvement is one intermediate station in the process of transforming the business. Our failure to engage, particularly with black people already working in these companies, represents abject deficiency on our part. This reluctance to talk is puzzling because it is exactly why we got involved.

You get a sense that we feel white people would be unhappy if we are seen to be taking sides. But at this stage of the process we have to be partisan. Such apathy should not be allowed to continue. It undermines the transformation process because:

  • Black people feel let down or without a clear context for the transformation process;

  • Support for them is weak and the BEE partner does not provide any cover, but can become something of a ‘sweetheart partner”; and

  • It perpetuates a divide-and-rule scenario if people and black business sectors are driven by different agendas and priorities.

It may sound like a stuck record, but as long as there is no unity of purpose and an activist disposition, the cherished emancipation is a long way from being realised.

Black shareholders are pivotal in this process and the route we took to reach this status obliges us to play this role to the benefit of those who deserve to gain from it rather than our own narrow interest.

Professor Njabulo Ndebele says: ‘Redistribution was given priority over creation and invention. That way we reaffirmed the structures of inequality by seeking to work within the inherent logic.” The objective should be to undermine those structures and collectively create new processes and priorities.

Continuing on the activist theme, the attendance at the Black Management Forum (BMF) conference last week was a gross disappointment both in terms of numbers and seniority of attendees. It is said people outgrow the BMF. For me it is utter nonsense and arrogance even to think that. As black managers, every inspiration, experience, role model and so on is essential and the BMF has always provided these.

Maya Angelou sees it thus: ‘When you learn, teach, when you get, give.” She also says: ‘If you do not appreciate the things you have, other people will treat them with contempt.”

Interestingly, one of the topics at the conference covered leadership learnings from Polokwane. The new BMF executive had an opportunity to show how to overcome divisive pre-election strife and create a new unified organisation.

If the preceding debates were in the interest of the BMF and were principled rather than opportunistic and personalised around ‘cult figures”, then the organisation would have emerged stronger.

Those of us opposed to the president doubling as a government bureaucrat now have to support the new executive for the good of the organisation.

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