/ 30 April 2021

Building cathedrals for black business

Barcelona, A Dismantled Tourist City
Antoni Gaudi’s cathedral — La Sagrada Familia — in Barcelona is a perfect illustration of the concept of Cathedral Thinking.(Photo by David Zorrakino/Europa Press via Getty Images)

In reflecting on the current challenges in the country, especially in the economic strata, with the lack of clear views being articulated by black voices in top leadership on transformation matters, and high-profile resignations of black executives, such as the ABSA and African Bank chief executives, the dream of former president Nelson Mandela is under threat. The common misunderstanding of this dream is that black people can pursue opportunities without particular programmes aimed at levelling the playing field, and that all black people will experience equity without a clear transformation project. In other words, business will be fair and just without law and regulation, and that the best person for the job will always be appointed. This perception prevails even amid transformation laws in the country. Self-regulation has never organically created fair outcomes, for change in general is resisted, hence the prevailing systemic challenges in the economy remain.

Cathedral Thinking as a concept

Antoni Gaudi’s cathedral — La Sagrada Familia — in Barcelona is a perfect illustration of the concept of Cathedral Thinking. Although this cathedral was first built in 1882, to date it has not been completed. It is envisaged, however, that it will be complete by the year 2026. The analogy used in relation to this temple is that leadership should have a long-term view of building systems and organisations. This view is critical in understanding that every brick that is laid must be purposeful and intentional. Leadership is also viewed as taking the time to build something that will outlive the current generation. When an analysis is done on unearthing problems that need changing, no short cuts are considered but the hard work of understanding the nature of the problem, where it started and what needs to happen to avert a continued challenge is. Cathedral Thinking takes succession planning seriously, ensuring that a leadership pipeline is developed and opportunities for leadership are created.  

Applying Cathedral Thinking to transformation

South Africa is limp-wristed from unclear definitions and objectives that are used at different moments to drive ambiguous agendas. South Africa lacks a clear definition for transformation, and thus every other organ of change abdicates their role in shaping the country in a progressive direction. Society at large is still unsure of the different roles that must be played in driving such transformation. Cathedral Thinking challenges us to view transformation as breaking away from the past and building for the future.

This is my proposed definition that incorporates three facets of transformation: Transformation as a science, seeks to measure the progress of black people in terms of their socioeconomic prosperity in a democratic dispensation;
Transformation as a craft, seeks to create policies and frameworks that will drive the inclusion of black people into the mainstream economy; and
Transformation as an art, seeks to deal with the mindset of society around creating a new society, which is fundamentally distinct from what was there prior to transformation efforts — building from the ground up and focusing on values and principles. 

Therefore, all stakeholders in society have a particular role to play in fusing the science, the craft and the art of transformation in the South African economy. This definition should be adopted by business, black lobby groups, government, labour and civil society and should become the DNA of every conference, discussion, engagement and policy submission in the country.

True candidates of transformation

Business is central to economic activity because it provides goods and services for society. Business in South Africa, however, views transformation from an individual rather than from an organisation’s perspective. Business believes that black people must lift themselves up by their bootstraps, but conveniently sidesteps the fact that black people need to be provided with the boots and straps first.

The organisation, therefore, is the primary beneficiary of and candidate for transformation, because they have been disadvantaged by the old-order policies of racism and overutilisation of whites for so long. These old-order policies have ignored the contributions that have been made by black people to the development and benefit of organisations. The continued presence of white men in top leadership roles in business suggests that business lacks the basic understanding that when the organisation fully reflects the demographics and values of the wider society, the organisation will experience more growth and development.

Black people in these organisations have become their own worst enemies. They allow their voices to be muzzled and prefer to assimilate to the prevailing old-order corporate culture. This challenge makes organisations like the Black Management Forum and others more relevant in protecting the integrity of the transformation process and articulating views that seek to drive deeper change in business. 

Transformation is a baby stuck in muddy water, and it is the duty of all stakeholders to rescue this baby, and not throw it out with the dirty water. Cathedral Thinking is the starting point, it is the middle-point, and it is the endpoint of building a new business culture  in South Africa. It is the mindset that must transform as we seek to transform our economy for the future.