Preaching to the Converted

By: Candice Kern-Thomas

Transformation like racism is not a black problem but a white one. So why is it that when dialogue on transformation takes place it is black people talking to each other rather than black and white conversing in an attempt to find joint solutions. Recently the Black Business Council (BBC) hosted a conference to deliberate on South Africa’s corporate nemesis: Transformation. If one wanted to rev up the temperature in corporate circles in South Africa, the mere mention of transformation gets people sweating and reaching for the cliché book to find excuses as to why twenty two years into democracy we are nowhere close to equality. Sectors like mining, finance and catering are but just a few industries that struggle to comply with Transformation and adherence to Employment Equity legislation.

There are so many ambiguities in the South African economy: unemployment keeps rising year on year up from 28.7% in 2008 to 36.4% in 2016 and yet there is a dearth of skills to fill vacant positions, some which have been so for months if not years. Furthermore black unemployment specifically is on the increase yet traditionally white companies are having no problem finding white labour to fill certain positions most notably senior and top management positions. Universities are churning out record numbers of black graduates yet it seems like very few climb the corporate ladders to take up positions in senior or top management. So what is the real problem and why is corporate South Africa so intransigent towards transformation?

I was recently asked for my opinion at a coffee meeting with an acquaintance who was visibly perplexed as to the reasons his company received a level eight on their B-BBEE certificate. Upon further inquiry it was revealed that the company has no black Ownership nor are they willing to entertain any prospects thereof. The staff compliment is predominately white male, in access of 80%, and he cites a lack of black talent and skills in their industry as their defence. The company offers no additional training to the few black staff members it employs and sees no value in training them, fearing that if they do, they will be poached by competitor companies. Furthermore, the company pays an annual fee towards a children’s charity in another province with no due diligence having been conducted into the charity and they cannot fathom the thought of having to “give away” any assistance to black businesses to help develop their businesses into sustainable enterprises. Still perplexing? Hardly. Nonetheless, what was regrettably apparent in conclusion of the conversation was that this company has no real compulsion to change because despite their dismal B-BBEE rating, they continue to do business as usual as their clients do not necessarily require a good B-BBEE level.

Having a conversation with some white or foreign owned and/or managed companies about B-BBEE is painful to say the least because they truly don’t see a reason to transform. If they are operating in their corner seemingly undetected and unaffected in their business or personal capacities there is no need for them to change. They depend on the resilience of the South African society to bounce back from the precipice each time there is flair up of impatience towards change. A combination of patronage and laziness as well as lack of will to find black talent is what informs the makeup of these companies organisational structures. Furthermore, corruption and incompetence in government gives them a curtain to hide their own lack of commitment to nation building through job creation and skills development. In addition to this, most white owned B-BBEE and Transformation Consulting companies further exacerbate the problem by providing these white top executives (the decision-makers) with “B-BBEE solutions” which promise the least disturbance to business as usual and ultimately defeat the spirit and objectives of Transformation.

Similarly, I’ve worked with companies that have embraced B-BBEE in its totality and have found that these companies continue to grow and out perform their peers because they have a vested interest in seeing this country succeed. My experience in working with these companies show that, over time they build competent and diverse work forces that champion the agenda of the company taking it to new heights. This shows directly on the bottom line with increased revenue, new market opportunities and high levels of productivity. In addition to this they have proof of the difference that their interventions have made in people’s lives though actual empowerment, training and social investments that they have made.

Talks are afoot to force listed companies to comply through the JSE, which is all well and good but what about the companies that are not listed who continue to do business in this country without any inclination towards change; these companies are in fact the true job creators. These are the companies who believe black people should start their own companies and employ their own people but fail to see that the barrier to entry for a black person to start a business is much higher as they don’t have the financial muscle, generational skills and memory, networks and fall back if things don’t pan out.

For Transformation to truly work in this country, all the parties need to sit around the table. It serves no purpose for black people to conference and draw up resolutions around issues they have not caused. History has proven that the ones who don’t want to change won’t change and they will bend, break or manipulate any system, policy or law to ensure their way of life is protected.

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