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The economy is the engine of reconciliation, and B-BBEE is the engine of transformation

In 2010 at the Black Management Forum Conference, the late Dr Lot Ndlovu warned South Africa about transformation fatigue that was creeping into the system. He was predicting that in 10 years’ time the appetite to drive transformation would wear off and that our collective ability to think carefully through the issues would begin to fade. He urged South Africa to fast-track broad-based black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) and overhaul the transformation landscape before it is too late. His prediction has been somewhat prophetic. 

Our democratic dispensation was a beacon of hope for many South Africans who despised apartheid. The country was a miracle nation, having avoided a civil war. The leadership of Nelson Mandela held the line and ushered in a new dispensation. 

Democracy, underpinned by principles of constitutionality, rule of law, an independent civil society, majority rule and individual rights remains shallowly applied and there is evidence of fatigue setting in. Fewer than 20-million people voted in the last general election. This fatigue should raise deep concerns for our democracy, for if less than half of the population is entrusted to vote on behalf of the majority, this will eventually undermine our democracy. The lack of interest in being involved in processes that keep politicians in check attests to a growing trust deficit and disinterest in building the country.

The miracle of 1994 did not amount to transformation; it created the conditions for transformation to begin. The new dispensation should not be regarded as the supreme achievement but rather an opportunity to co-create a new society built on democratic values. This new dispensation should be driven by the aspirations of economic freedom, and not merely political freedom. Mandela’s dream of reconciliation has been distorted by both black and white people in this country. White people thought that transformation is about building a school and a clinic, and that means they have adequately contributed to transforming the country. Black people became confused by new spaces and opportunities created by the new conditions of democracy. 

Both black and white people misunderstood the vision of the forefathers on what true reconciliation means. Reconciliation cannot be premised on good will and an inorganic process of equitable distribution of opportunities. Reconciliation must be premised on equity, justice and fairness, which challenges all of society to rebuild the country through active participation and not through inactive involvement.    

Many economies in the world are diamond shaped, meaning that there are fewer people at the top and bottom and the majority are in the middle, representing the middle class. In South Africa, the economy is a triangle, with fewer people at the top and the majority at the bottom. Without a growing middle class and focus on economic development, the country is at risk. 

According to the World Inequality Lab Report, 10% of the population owns more than 85% of household wealth, and more than half of the population have more liabilities than assets. The same report says that South Africa is the most unequal society, where 3 500 adults own more than the poorest 32-million people. Black people outnumber white people in the richest 10%, but inequality has not narrowed since 1994. 

The recently released green paper on Social Security and Retirement Reform states that 5.8-million people were on social security in the early 2000s and this number has grown to 18-million. The 2021 second quarter labour force survey results show an increase in unemployment, which is now 34.4%, and that black Africans have a higher unemployment rate than the national average at 38.2%. According to Statistics SA, the economically active population (EAP) is about 39.5-million people, with black Africans having a 79.3% EAP.  According to the Commission for Employment Equity, the top echelons of leadership in business are still dominated by white males followed by Indians. In most industries there seems to be an inbuilt formula of few major oligopolists dominating the market and enjoying influence and opportunity. 

The miracle that became a nightmare is that black economic empowerment has been sidestepped and transformation has not been fully understood and accepted. From ownership transactions through the five elements of B-BBEE, business and government have not fully immersed themselves in the fiery task of deliberately and intentionally breaking the oligopoly and redirecting opportunities to where they matter most. This defector miracle of being a bystander leader in government and business needs a radical mind-shift, for the ground is fertile for a possible collapse of our democracy.

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

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