Opinionista Onkgopotse JJ Tabane 1 August 2013

Khanyi Dlomo: Illuminating Luminance

Should black people only own unsustainable spaza shops and hair salons? I am asking this on the back of the misplaced outrage following the funding of Khanyi Dhlomo's luxury emporium in Hyde Park Corner, one of the most expensive shopping malls in South Africa.

I hold no brief for the delectable and intelligent Khanyi Dhlomo and whatever silver spoon she may have been born with. But I am annoyed that there seems to be an expectation that the National Empowerment Fund and related development funding institutions are seemingly expected to fund only that which appears to be bits and pieces of small businesses in order for them to be said to be fulfilling their mandate. It is apparently sinful if they fund someone like Dhlomo to play in the big league. It does not seem to matter to her detractors that she poured her own money into the venture, nor that this is not some kind of social grant but a loan that must be fully repaid. What matters is what has become a typical pull-her-down syndrome characterises us as South Africans but, more shockingly, our poor understanding of what BEE should be about.

It looks like going back to the blunt basics may be necessary here. Three hundred years ago, white people arrived in a boat and took over everything to the exclusion of black people. This take over was characterised by a marginalisation of blacks owning anything from land to movable property. Through successful colonial regimes, blacks became even more marginalised. Such marginalisation was further institutionalised in the economy following apartheid policies. This marginalisation was indiscriminate: it targeted both the small players and the big ones where dispossession was the order of the day. You can have sympathy for a further misguided view about correcting this by appropriation without compensation because this story basically constituted theft – the broad daylight kind – where a whole people in the majority were dispossessed. Now fast forward to the new South Africa with a new Constitution that seeks redress. There is an argument to be made for redress through what has come to be coined “levelling the playing field”. This has been a huge failure of the post-1994 settlement if you assess the ownership patterns of the economy to date. The stock exchange pathetically remains almost in the same white hands who benefitted from the tyranny of apartheid and colonialism. BEE, with all its weaknesses, was an attempt to level this uneven playing field.

Levelling this playing field, therefore, cannot mean that black must once again be the recipients of small little “grants” for some survivalist business that can barely change the landscape even in their chosen fields. While their white counterparts continue to enjoy the apartheid head-start of playing in the big league, where billions change hands daily in the stock exchange. It is this mentality that has sometimes also afflicted government and its development funding institutions even with their good intentions, which has resulted in the failure to transform some huge industries. The classical example is the allocation of R30-million rand to the Media Development and Diversity Agency upon its launch a few years ago, to transform a multimillion-rand media industry. This was essentially a joke that the untransformed industry enjoyed. The industry can only start to see real change where there is no apology for multibillion-rand transactions like we have seen with the recent purchase of the Independent Newspapers. Even in this case detractors started nit-picking and lamenting about public funds being used to make such a transaction possible. The participation of the Pension Funds was criticised with rival media groups conniving to question this as somehow inappropriate.

To illuminate further on the Luminance matter … I believe this transaction speaks to a contribution towards levelling the playing field. Black business cannot just be reduced to selling some tomatoes on the pavement to survive but must increasingly be about wrestling back the cornerstone of serious ownership of various industries. Gone are the days of ownership tokenism where blacks must be contend with 25% crumbs and call it empowerment.

As a society, we need to wake up before we have a revolution in our hands. Whether it is about land redistribution that has become a farce or the property industry that has become a preserve of the white few, it is important to stop thinking small when it comes to empowering black people; and have this innate belief that blacks should be given small amounts to survive instead of being given support to play in the big league.

There has been a lot of consternation about whether the NEF must empower those that are seen to have made it. My retort is simple: until we are all economically free there should not be people who are excluded because they are a success story. We must encourage excellence and we must learn to celebrate black success. People like Dhlomo must be exalted and given even more chances to empower others who look up to them. Let us snap out of the pull-her-down syndrome.

Finally, none of this means that the NEF is perfect. There is a lot of introspection that is necessary to ensure that NEF and related development institutions can be of service to the people and get their act together in accelerating development funding and therefore black economic empowerment. There are just too many complaints about these institutions not being any better than banks in the way that they appreciate the journey of the small businessman who needs a lift into the big league. This debate will make them listen hopefully.

But for now let me see what I can afford at Luminance. The lady needs a leg up to afford the payback. DM


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