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Black business needs a new meeting place

COMMENT

The Black Management Forum (BMF) has entered its 45th year of existence, and it will be taking a moment to pause and reflect on its gains and relevance in the South African transformation landscape.

All organisations of consequence have unique beginnings and symbols of hope. The BMF is no different to many organisations that have graced our society and contributed to transformation.

The meeting place of the BMF in the late 1970s and 1980s was undoubtedly the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg’s former central business district. This was the seminal place where the noble ideas of transformation were birthed. The Carlton was the only place where black leaders could meet without being arrested or harassed by the apartheid government. The hotel had international standing and this reputation was meaningful to white business and the apartheid government. This sop appeasement to the international community was an attempt to display a picture of a country that did not exist outside of the hotel’s foyer.

This meeting place, however, was where other rich ideas lived and were nurtured and were allowed to grow. This place was a moment of freedom for our leaders to express themselves in a country that had subjugated black people beyond human recognition. It was a place where black leaders could boldly appear and challenge the status quo in dreaming of a better future for our people. Many of these  managers were employed by multinational enterprises from the United States who had adopted the Sullivan Principles.

These codes were developed by a black American preacher, Reverend Leon H Sullivan, who worked for General Motors. The codes confronted racial segregation in business in South Africa, pressuring the apartheid government to remove laws of separate development.

Key BMF milestones

From the first moments of meeting at the Carlton Hotel, the BMF grew the idea of building a home for black professionals who needed support and development. For the past 45 years, the forum has not shied away from the immediate context of the country, and after the State of Emergency of 1985, began to strengthen its advocacy and onslaught against Corporate South Africa.

Black managers began to articulate political views under the cloak of corporate colours, displaying their intellectual abilities to unravel the deeply rooted and illicit relationship between business and politics. These black managers understood that the genesis of apartheid was not political, but economic. 

The BMF also argued at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that business was an extension of the macro-political agenda of apartheid, and therefore had no choice but to be racist because the country already belonged to white people.

The BMF moved on to influence affirmative action in South Africa and developed the Basotho Hat Model to give a unique and clear understanding of affirmative action, which paved the way for the Employment Equity Act. The BMF challenged business to fully transform within seven years after the affirmative action blueprint of 1993 was developed. 

The BMF also played a critical role in the establishment of the Black Economic Empowerment Commission in 1998, which led to the landmark B-BBEE Act as amendment. 

Nevertheless, the BMF targets of affirmative action have not been achieved because the critical mass of black managers at top management remains elusive.

A view to the future

Business today has an over-reliance on a few black leaders at the highest level in business and a diminishing pool of white leaders, who are trusted more to lead. Through the reintroduction of the Basotho Hat Model in 2021, the BMF is committed to break these artificial glass ceilings and ensure that black leadership is utilised and represented at the highest level.

All black lobby groups need to organise themselves better, anchoring thought leadership and research within their ranks, with ongoing input into policy and giving insight into best business practices. 

A critical focus on affirmative action to transform organisational culture, which has been beset and arrested by continuous challenges around black women, unequal pay, systemic racism, values, token black chief executives and chairpersons, who have limited power to advance transformation while appeasing white executives and white owners on matters of transformation. 

This focus on corporate culture will impact positively on organisational performance, leading to both staff satisfaction and customer satisfaction.

Black professional organisations should work tirelessly in creating more frameworks and models that can be adopted by government and business to drive economic transformation and sustainable growth. 

The BMF is currently working on the Indigenous Management Model, focusing on frameworks and models that will usher in an intellectual revolution, that ought to be anchored in unity and fuelled by the ethos and principle of Ubuntu.

The meeting place today is not the Carlton Hotel, but the constitution of South Africa where a clear mandate to rebuild our country stems from, where business, government, labour and civil society must meet to reimagine and commit to transforming the South African economy. 

Let the new meeting place be the intersection of economic justice, fairness, and equity. Let us all meet at the place where we unlock the value of our human capital which will lead to inclusive economic growth — the place where black lives matter.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Monde Ndlovu
Monde Ndlovu is head of advocacy and thought leadership at the Black Management Forum

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