In 2000, Dr Wiseman Magasela published an insightful and thought-provoking article titled “The Invisible Black Professionals”. The article aptly and succinctly describes the current state of dispossession and marginalisation that black people are still experiencing within the South African economy. He stated the following, “If you are black in South Africa’s world of work, it is a daily struggle against a system that constantly alienates you, aiming to exclude and sideline you. If you are black, you are never good enough.”
One was reminded of these hauntingly truthful words when listening to the sentiments expressed by the CEO of Business Leadership South Africa, Bonang Mohale in a radio interview this past week claiming that the ANC-led government has “killed” more black businesses and black professionals than the National Party did during its 46-year rule and that we haven’t done nearly enough for black businesses and black professionals.
This is an astoundingly parochial and ahistorical claim, given that the challenge the ANC-led government has been faced with since coming into power in 1994 is not just to reverse the effects of 46 years of National Party (mis)rule, but rather over 350 years of colonial oppression and systemic exclusion of the black majority in South Africa from participation in the mainstream economy, of marginalisation and lack of access to resources, opportunities and privileges.
Au contraire Mr Mohale, it is the ANC-led government with its progressive employment equity and broad-based black economic empowerment policies that has been the biggest ally of black business and black professionals. These policies are an existential necessity for our country as we strive to build a non-racial society because, as a World Bank report recently revealed, access to opportunities and privileges in this country remains stubbornly highly-racialised, despite the best efforts of the ruling party over the past 25 years.
Mohale’s sentiments are reminiscent of the historical struggles of liberals (both white and black) to deal with the challenge of white privilege and one would hope that he would use his position to contribute more meaningfully to the transformational objectives of the country. A good starting point would be to address the challenge of the “Balkanisation” of the business community in this country into different, highly racialised voices as evidenced by his organisation’s highly-publicised split with the Black Business Council, mostly over economic transformation objectives. Perhaps it would be more accurate to hypothesise that his sentiments betray a certain political and ideological posture and bias, which he is unfairly advancing through his privileged position as a business leader, without openly coming out and declaring so.
He could use his position to ensure that the business community cooperates and contributes positively to deracialising the economy by dealing with the monopolistic tendencies that still characterise our economy, with a high concentration of a few big firms controlling large swathes of the economic value chain at the expense of small businesses and innovation, critical ingredients in building a more inclusive, socially just and equitable economy.
He could use his influence to ensure that big business plays a more significant role in unlocking opportunities within the economic value chain for township enterprises and small black businesses, as well as contributing to a change in ownership and management patterns through a greater commitment to skills development as well as enterprise and supplier development.
This is the kind of conversation that the likes of Mohale should be introducing into the public discourse as opposed to blindly (and fallaciously) downplaying and ridiculing the achievements of the democratic government.
It is a an indisputable fact that the ANC-led government has done the most to use its procurement spend to empower small black businesses, as evidenced by the fact that since 2014 in Gauteng alone we have spent over R74-billion procuring goods and services from historically-disadvantaged establishments and have supported 28,284 small black businesses from within Gauteng in that period.
Not only that, we have devoted ourselves wholeheartedly to the revitalisation and mainstreaming of the township economy and have invested heavily in strategic, catalytic economic infrastructure aimed at rebuilding the productive capacity of the township economy and black business, in order to promote manufacturing and localisation as we move to re-industrialise our city-region’s economy.
One would also like to add that it is only the ANC-led government that has shown such a commitment to uplifting and empowering black businesses and black professionals – in other provinces and municipalities that are run by opposition parties this is not even an afterthought.
At this critical juncture, what is most needed as we move towards a “second wave” of empowerment is to ensure that the black businesses and township enterprises that we have been empowering become more sustainable by participating in other sectors of the economy beyond just government procurement, and this is where the likes of Mohale and the organisation he leads should be playing a more prominent role. Mohale and his organisation should be talking about how they can contribute more significantly to the spatial reconfiguration of our society so that we can locate and position the black majority much more closely to economic opportunities as opposed to the periphery.
Writing in ANC Today in 2004, in response to critics of the ruling party’s black empowerment policies, former President Thabo Mbeki made the following poignant observation:
“It is clear that there are some in our country who do not want the truth to be known about what our government and the public sector as a whole are doing to implement broad-based BEE.”
We need to remind ourselves of these seemingly perennially axiomatic words from our former President when we listen to the likes of Mohale peddling such untruths with heartfelt conviction. DM