Not surprisingly, some have cynically referred to BEE as “Black Elite Enrichment” or “Black Elite Entitlement” – a policy devoid of merit and ability was destined to flop at multiple levels, and ultimately in failing to deliver to the poor.
The South African Constitution laid the foundation for a democratic, non-racist, non-sexist country, and embedded dignity and human rights. Given the vast, apartheid-spawned socio-economic inequalities, and the imperatives of transformation, affirmative action policies and legislation such as the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) Act (2003) were introduced to redistribute resources and opportunities to previously disadvantaged communities.
BEE represented a “commitment to readdressing injustices of the past” as well as promoting “economic participation and wealth redistribution to the majority of the population who were previously systematically disenfranchised and refused the right to participate in the economic wealth of South Africa”. BEE was also intended to benefit “women, workers, youth, and people with disabilities and people living in rural areas”.
Notwithstanding its honourable intentions, the implementation of BEE has become a sensitive and controversial issue in South Africa, especially in terms of who qualifies for benefits. After 23 years into democracy, the majority remained disadvantaged, and the benefits appear to have been reaped by a narrow group of cabals, clans, cliques, coteries and crooks, with close connections with the ruling ANC government and who are disconnected from the disadvantaged in every possible way. Not surprisingly, some have cynically referred to BEE as “Black Elite Enrichment” or “Black Elite Entitlement”. A policy devoid of merit and ability was destined to flop at multiple levels, and ultimately in failing to deliver to the poor.
In September 2015, a demographically representative survey of 2,245 South Africans (1,757 blacks, 203 coloureds, 63 Indians and 223 whites), conducted by the Institute of Race Relations, revealed that 85% did not benefit from BEE policies, and 87% believed that government appointments, contracts and tenders must be based on merit.
A contentious issue is who qualifies as “black” and, according to the Empowerment Act, this includes “Africans, coloureds and Indians”. There have been several public threats against South Africans of Indian origin, who are perceived to be historically privileged vis-à-vis the African majority, and especially the view that third and fourth generation descendants of indentured labourers should return to India.
On 15 October 2017, the Sunday Times reported that Sihle Zikalala, KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Economic Development (and “chairperson” of KZN ANC Exco), had submitted a proposal to National Treasury that Indians and coloureds should be excluded from state contracts exceeding R50-million. In addition, Zikalala wanted “to ensure that in a procurement, BEE is increased in favour of the Africans and blacks in general. This thing of defining blacks and Africans in general terms is also a problem … We must know who is an African and blacks in general”.
IFP leader Blessed Gwala argued that “all these targeted people, especially Indians, contributed to the country’s economy”. MP Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela, also maintained that Zikalala’s “proposal flies in the face of the significant contribution that other sectors of the historically disadvantaged have made to the struggle for freedom, justice and democracy. How insensitive and crass can you get to imply that the sacrifices of the Indian and coloured communities were somehow lesser?”
According to Brad Cibane, lawyer and editor of the blog, Law Thinker, “while the apartheid system favoured Indians over Africans, it did not improve the lives of all Indians. Indians got better homes, better schools, better jobs but they were subject to similar economic, political and social prejudices”. He also drew attention to the class and socio-economic differentiation, noting, “Inequality is as rife in Indian communities as it is in African communities. While some Indians have made fortunes (say the Guptas or the Reddys), others endure the same degree of poverty and need so prevalent in African communities. But those Indians are far fewer in number.”
The disappointment and angst of lay people of Indian origin was palpable on social media as captured by this post on FB: “Indians have never truly been accepted into South Africa. Through the years, we have tried to become interwoven into the fabric of this society, yet I can’t help but feel that if this country were a jersey, we’d be that irritating strand of cotton that, try as you may, you just can’t cut off. Which is a shame, seeing as how much most of us love this country, and that our ancestors were forced to move here.”
There was also concern that Zikalala’s proposal was unconstitutional. This was emphasised by Ashwin Trikamjee, President of the SA Hindu Maha Sabha (religious heads have no choice but to step into the leadership vacuum in the community), the South African Constitution “guarantees freedom of trade, and more significantly, it guarantees the right to economic freedom. Therefore any dilution of that right or, for that matter, a restriction to free economic trade constitutes a breach of that right”.
In an open letter to Zikalala, veteran journalist and activist Dennis Pather said: “I believe your attempt at political engineering runs counter to the spirit and ethos of our Constitution and violates my inalienable rights as a citizen … your proposal appears to be strictly race-based, which is unbecoming of a party that spearheaded the historic campaign that gave rise to the demise of racial segregation”. Human rights activist, Priths Dullay, who had also been in exile, argued on Facebook: “If you (Zikalala) focus attention on the treasonous corruption of the ANC at every level that steals money designated for people’s upliftment instead of fidgeting with rearranging the deck chairs (on the Titanic?), you would have added value to our democracy.”
While acknowledging that in terms of apartheid hierarchy Indians and coloureds were not as adversely affected as Africans, Dr Faisal Suliman of the SA Muslim Network (SAMNET) contended that Zikalala’s retrogressive proposal “sends the wrong signal and is an incorrect way to address redress”. Suliman was critical of politically connected cronies who benefited from government contracts: “We all want to see the distribution of wealth to the people, particularly the previously disadvantaged, but not to people linked to comrades of any political affiliation. Trikamjee maintained that “given the present chaos caused as a direct result of tender fraud – one expects more attention in that area as it has become a cancer in our democracy.”
Wits Professor William Gumede warned ominously that those countries which had to legitimately introduce redistribution policies to address historical dispossession and inequalities are “particularly vulnerable to corruption, state capture and mismanagement. The big danger is that economic transformation, economic freedom and decolonisation only benefit small elites, often the leader of the governing party, allies and their associated families”. No prizes for guessing which country and leader. DM
Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.
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