Opinionista Onkgopotse JJ Tabane 20 May 2015

Dear Peter Bruce… Let’s talk frankly

Your tirade against the minister of trade and industry, Rob Davies, published in your Thick End of the Wedge column in May 2015, sounded like a whining and uncritical defense of white… capital.

Quite frankly, white big business has itself to blame for the unraveling of black economic empowerment. It was, in the first place made necessary by their reluctance to wake up and smell the coffee of a new nation being built. You’re ridiculing a welcome intervention to fix things borders on the ridiculous… but nothing gives you away more than the sentence, “… instead of championing established South African industry, he keeps trying to change it. He would call this transformation but that is poppycock. It is pure destruction”.

The department of trade and industry (dti) and the National Development Plan (NDP) for that matter does not have a brief to “champion established South African industry”; this smells like a longing for the maintenance of the parlous status quo. So-called “established” business has only managed to master 2% economic growth. No government interfered with their poor uptake of investments and the growth of their own businesses that should on aggregate grow the economy. It’s a cheap shot to always blame government when the private sector has deliberately sat on billions of rands they have actively decided not to invest in a constructive way. This same “established industry” that must be championed has not bothered to hire blacks in the higher echelons of their companies and, year after year, they did not think of showing any sensitivity or even gratefulness to redress the horrors of dispossession and the denial of opportunities. I don’t hear you reserving your disdain for a white regime that destroyed this economy and pushed it to the margins of global trade. This so called “established business” was complicit in the shambles that you now decry.

You accuse Davies of “artful manipulation”, the label you give a well thought-out compromise that BEE is in fact focused on the spirit of redress, a word that finds no space in your vocabulary throughout your column. The reality is those who have been highly manipulated where BEE is concerned are the same established businesses you want Davies to worship. You don’t have a single harsh word to say to business about the fraud that was born through the manipulation of the real intended beneficiaries of the broad based policy. The reason business and its defenders like you are up in arms is that now they can no longer fudge empowerment to ensure they can carry on with business as usual. They can’t tick the box of black shareholders, an amorphous group of people who are so removed from the business that they cannot have any meaningful impact or involvement in it.

Now, Peter, you want Davies to give this sham his blessing by continuing on a path that has been manipulated by business? Frankly, dream on. The reality is government has finally drawn a line in the sand about the use of youth, women and the disabled as tokens of the continuation of the status quo. You don’t have to embellish this, though, by saying the schemes have been made “illegal”. This is a total fabrication. Firstly, previously concluded deals will continue (not my preference, frankly), and secondly, new deals will be accommodated but just at a lower points score of three, putting these as only a part of and not the only way that the ownership requirement is fulfilled.

Those who are upset about this sensible change to the BEE law are largely business people who were bent on a short cut experiment scheme where they didn’t have to deal with black owners with opinions, skills and real input relevant to business. Gone are the days where business will be too happy to being partly owned by a group of elderly women in KwaZulu-Natal who can’t even spell ‘JSE’ but will receive crumbs from the table of the master from time to time.

Yes, it’s a mess Peter, but only for fronting, the tick box mentality and fraud.

Yes it is the point to have black industrialists, and it is not a mass meeting approach. In any society anywhere in the world, industrialists are in the minority, not the masses – a reality we see on the JSE (3% black) so there is an argument – which I suggest you get used to – that there will be at least 100 black industrialists who will be produced by Davies’ government in the next while.

You take offence on behalf of industry when Davies exposes their mischief. Let me repeat it for you, a lot of white business is mischievous when it comes to empowerment.

  • They hire token blacks that won’t challenge them, give them shares in extreme cases, making them shareholders even without their knowledge. That is mischief.

  • They bribe civil servants to turn a blind eye to crooked empowerment credentials.

  • They hire full time people whose sole job is to find the most effective way to tick the boxes and make the BEE institution go away. Their job is to handle nagging by government while the real business goes on.

  • They hive off riches just before they conclude BEE deals. But as if that is not mischievous enough, you find companies that ran parallel financial systems where they can hide huge amounts of money from their black shareholder/s.

All these examples show plenty of mischief – making it impossible to have active empowerment. In fact, business hates it and have people like you, Peter, doing their bidding to continue excluding active board members in corporations.

After all, the role of the board is to determine strategic direction of a company and it is ultimately responsible for the success of a company. You can’t counter pose this with hard work as if you gotta choose when you are an owner and shareholder between a good board and good management. Your statement about “developing black managers” is as misplaced as it is mischievously patronising. It smacks of racist prejudice that blacks are only good enough as workers/managers in business on behalf of others and they must be disabused of notions of ownership. They must just be trained to work for someone. You are unbelievable.

The BEE codes, Peter, are clearly designed to ensure that ownership must be meaningful and active, and management must be equally representative of our new society. Employment equity must be implemented and current trends are an anathema to our changing demographics reversed. Yes, Peter, it may be irritating to you but big business has to be accountable to the imperatives of the national project where enterprise development is concerned and people like you may well have to enroll in courses explaining how someone who owns an enterprise, whether new or ‘established’, can be actively involved in all its levels from ownership and governance to operations.

You quote with glee the statistics on slowing economic growth (by Statistics South Africa) and blame this so quickly on “guys like these running the economy”. When one reads most of your Thick End of the Wedge columns one could be forgiven for concluding that you see them as being irrelevant and a non-factor and that the ‘God’ called ‘the market’ should do its own thing. Yet you are bold in saying government should only show its irritating rear when there is market failure.

Do I need to remind you of the failed banking system in the west, not so long ago and how taxpayers bankrolled it? Why do you want us to champion established business blindly? For what purpose? To what end?

In the entire column you only got one thing right and that’s when you said, “but real empowerment is not going to happen until government makes it cheaper and easier to do business”. I couldn’t agree more but this does not make your irritation over true empowerment go away. Nor does it replace the need for redress and transformation. The sentiment is correct but misplaced and used here as a diversion from the real issues on the table right now.

But then you spoil the whole thing by saying about government, “until they get out of the way”. Like where in the world Peter, England maybe? Where in the world is government ever going to “get out of the way”? This is the most senile thing to suggest. Why not collaboration between private sector and public sector for the common good instead of being so arrogant as to suggest our partner should “get out of the way?” Effing much, Peter?

Yours frankly,

Onkgopotse JJ Tabane DM


Support DAILY MAVERICK & get FREE UBER vouchers every month

An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money, though not nearly as much as its absence can cost global community. No country can live and prosper without truth - that's why it matters.

Every Daily Maverick article and every Scorpio exposé is proof of our dedication to this unshakeable mission. Investing in our news media is by far the most effective investment into South Africa's future.

You can support Independent and Investigative journalism by joining Maverick Insider. If you contribute R150 or more per month you will receive R100 back in UBER vouchers. EVERY MONTH until October 2019.

So, if you'd like to help and do something meaningful for yourself and your country, then sign up to become a Maverick Insider. Together we can Defend Truth.

Days of Zondo

Politics of distraction at play as EFF drowns out Gordhan’s testimony

By Ferial Haffajee