Reporter’s notebook: Black Business Council’s back to fight another day

By Stephen Grootes 22 September 2011

When you hear the phrase “This is the BBC”, one mostly thinks of London – of empire fallen and influence that still reigns. But we’re also going to have to think of something else from now on as the BBC also means the Black Business Council. Revived as part of the falling out between Business Unity South Africa and some of the black organisations, the BBC sets sail in turbulent times. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

To chair the BBC, its members recycled Patrice Motsepe, one of the main movers behind the Busa inception in the first place. On Wednesday, the BBC had its first pukka press conference. And everyone knows a press conference is an attempt at getting influence. To make your own empire.

Right, let’s start with what we don’t know. In this case, we don’t know how the “black” in “Black Business Council” is defined either. But we’ll move on because classifying people hasn’t ended well in South Africa in the past.

I have not spent much time with Motsepe, but he gives the impression of someone who knows his way around the media. You know, like your average football club owner. It’s always nice to be in the hands of someone who knows what he’s doing. Which is presumably why he’s been asked to chair the BBC at this point. He himself gives every impression of being the reluctant leader, the general who led the revolution, brought peace, and went off into the sunset back to his share portfolio. And then was called back. According to him “we shouldn’t give the impression of recycling past presidents” because “it sends a message that we don’t have confidence in people”. There is a political comment in there somewhere. But anyway, that reluctance does seem genuine.

When it comes to the formation of the BBC, it’s an organisation of organisations. In other words, the groups that belong to it, like Nafcoc and Santaco, represent various companies that are owned, we presume, by people defined as “black”. And yes, the Black Management Forum is one of them. That’s the one that is not an organisation of organisations, but is an organisation of black managers, many of whom – or so we believe – are actually not business people at all, but rather managers in the public sector and that source of things not very efficient, parastatals. So their membership of a “business” organisation is, well, interesting. Their managing director, Nomhle Nkumbi-Ndopu took great offence at a direct question on this issue. She claims that fact about the number of BMF members who work in the public sector is wrong, and that many of its members are actually in private business. But she didn’t give us an actual figure. And besides, she says, it has a “broad network of branches” in universities for “aspiring black managers”. Right then. It’s for the students. Okay, we get it.

Talks are still planned between the BBC and Busa. So there is a chance that the two may reconcile, but we wouldn’t put too much money on it. It seems that things have gone too far, and the recriminations have started to really hurt. And it’s also a little early to really assess the power and influence of the BBC. It’s still brand just-out-of-the-box new, finding its feet and other similar metaphors. As it grows and gets more sure-footed, it may have very real power, so too would its reluctant founding leader.

For a start, Motsepe is clearly a capitalist first, and a politician second – the opposite of Tokyo Sexwale if you like. We know this because he kept referring to how it would take investment to grow the economy and to create jobs. And crucial to that was that “the investor in London and New York must know that their money is safe here”. You wouldn’t catch anyone who has to face young Julius saying that in public.

I asked him directly whether the BBC’s views on inflation targeting and the jobs versus decent work debate differed much from Busa’s. It sounds simple, but it’s a loaded question. One of the main reasons for the BMF walkout of BUSA was the argument around labour broking. Busa believes there’s a place for it, as you would expect business owners to do. The BMF sounded more like a former director-general of the labour ministry when it said that “labour broking goes against the soul of black business”.

Motsepe’s answer was long, and takes a while to decipher. The mains points are that “we should be like in the US” where they target “both inflation and jobs”. In other words, the Reserve Bank should have a dual mandate, rather than the single inflation-targeting mandate that it does now. Fair enough, he’s not the only person to say that. Then on the hugely complex and difficult political issue around jobs, well, it’s hard to know what he meant. But “we live in a global world and we must be competitive”. That sounds an awful lot like he’s on the “jobs” side of this debate.

Motsepe also comes across as one of those who believe that growth is more important than redistribution; he gives the impression that he would vote for making the pie bigger for everyone. He says the economy is “going to change dramatically in the next 30 years”, that black people must take a leaf out of the Afrikaner’s book. In other words, we need more businesses created and owned by black people. As it would have been useless for Afrikaans people to complain that the economy was controlled by the English speakers in the 1950s, so it’s useless for black people to complain that business is controlled by white people now. And he doesn’t want those black-owned businesses to be any kind of threat to white business, he wants them to “work together and to compete”.

See, more capitalist than politician.

Time and time again Motsepe came back, obliquely, to the issue of race. It was typified by this, “We need every white father and every black father, and every black woman and every white woman, when they go to bed, to feel I have a future in this country, my children will have a future here, they will not be discriminated against because they are the wrong colour”.

It’s rather simple, but hugely powerful stuff. Especially if, like me, your son’s hair looks awfully blonde in the sun.

It seems unlikely at the moment that peace is going to break out violently in the business arena. But things can change. It’s going to take a while for the BBC to find a common policy position on the big issues of the day. Hopefully, they will discover that on economic and business issues, they don’t differ with Busa at all. If that happens, we could find it’s almost more powerful as a pressure group than Busa was previously, because it will have a sort of political legitimacy. When it calls President Jacob Zuma, it would be Patrice Motsepe on the line, with a message from ANC voters who just happen to be richer than the common man. This opposed to an organisation that has really struggled to get its own internal racial politics right, and still looks uncomfortably white.

Of course it could go the other way. Already the BMF has had an unsettling influence on events, far bigger than its actual membership should allow for. That is partly because of its leader, Jimmy Manyi. Motsepe comes across as a very different type of person. It should be fun watching them fight for the soul of the black business lobby. DM



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