What should have been the broadest possible benefit became the narrowest sliver of entitlement and the mighty enrichment of a few. And all of that because way too many see BEE as a zero-sum game.
There are many issues that black economic empowerment causes, such as its unintended consequence of fostering a culture of entitlement. By splitting the country up between those who were previously disadvantaged and those who ostensibly benefited from the old order, it is the nest in which victim mentality can lie, safe in the knowledge that economic benefit will legitimise it and keep it alive long after it should have died.
The way BEE is structured is quite perverse. The defining characteristic of its recipients is race, and even the staunchest critics must admit that there’s a jolly good reason for that. However, there’s something terribly wrong with a system meant to even the skewed table of economic disparity that sees Tokyo Sexwale and an uneducated street vendor in Alexandria in the same light. The “previously disadvantaged” tag loses meaning when it serves mainly to help a few people amass huge fortunes in its name.
BEE is just a symptom of an even greater flaw knitted into the South African social fabric. We love the myth of the zero-sum game in South Africa. What I gain is what I took away from you. Your every gain is my every loss. We love it, and it’s going to destroy the country because nobody wants to look out for anyone else, except themselves and their kin. We’ve lost sight of the bigger picture.
Black economic empowerment was crafted to mean, largely, the literal transfer of shares from white-owned companies to black individuals or their companies. “Empowerment partner” was the thing to be, as a black person. Besides becoming a vehicle for companies like Old Mutual to take their money out of the country, BEE resulted in just a small number of individuals benefiting a great deal. Economic empowerment for black people appeared as if it could only be achieved by taking something away from white people.
Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi spoke of this at The Daily Maverick’s “The Gathering” at the beginning of November. He said that broad-based black economic empowerment should be translated to mean, in the main, more jobs for workers (i.e. investing in those who really need empowerment). Not more shares for Sexwale and Motsepe and the like. But Cosatu itself is quite willing to abandon that logic when applying it doesn’t quite work to their advantage. Like when it comes to pay hikes. Cosatu’s logic is that the annual percentage increase of wages must be as high as possible, because this is good for its members. It doesn’t seem to care what effect this might have on companies or the economy in general. In fact, Cosatu has done a pretty good job of making sure labour is very expensive when compared to productivity, and it’s done an excellent job of locking many poor people out of the job market by effectively lobbying for a high minimum wage, discouraging businesses from hiring these people. They really believe that gains for workers can only be made at the cost of business and the economy.
The fallacy of the zero-sum game is in our national dialogue. There is this constant wringing of hands among certain white people over whether or not they will be allowed a slice of the pie. It’s natural that black voices would begin to dominate the dialogue in the public space – if only because they’ve been suppressed for so long. Should this be cause for consternation among whites? Should this be reason for them to lie awake at night, concerned that their turf is disappearing? Does the rise of black voices mean that white voices are no longer welcome?
Remember that ANC election slogan, the one we loved to make fun of – “Working together, we can do more”? They were on to something. Why can’t we work together as a country to make the pie bigger for everyone, instead of fighting over it?
Why can’t we interpret black economic empowerment to mean training and jobs for the poor? Wouldn’t more people have jobs if the unions allowed the government to relax minimum wage limits and pay hike increases? Why should the basis of our national dialogue be the mistrust bred over the concern that you may no longer have a seat at the table (despite the fact that the Constitution guarantees your place)? Why can’t we all just get along and have a bigger pie to share?
Then again, I’m just an idealist. DM
Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.
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