We have given of our best to interpret to ourselves what a sustainable BEE company should look like, writes Gloria Serobe.
The Apartheid system was a very complex, sophisticated and successful programme for excluding blacks from any meaningful participation in the economy.
It was unique and executed by its architects with precision and attention to detail and all the intellectual capacity at their disposal.
And so, what we now have in South Africa since the birth of our democracy 20 years ago is the first generation of government leaders and politicians trying to undo this, untying the knots of so many years.
It is the biggest national experiment in the world, with no particular global reference because of its uniqueness, and executing this change requires the same amount of intellectual capacity, precision and attention to detail as demonstrated by apartheid’s architects.
It may take longer than we would like to see the expected results.
And so business, particularly big business, is learning to operate under a different kind of regime, which now requires the economic participation and inclusion of all South Africans.
Business has got to come on board and partner the government in a meaningful and honest way in this big project of the transformation of the economy.
So far, business has not quite shown its genuine hand in this 20-year project.
For starters, big business lost a huge opportunity by not coming on board in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The chief executives of the big businesses of the time made a tactical error in refusing to participate in what was meant to be a “face yourself in the mirror” kind of moment.
One of the results of this error is a massive lack of trust between the government and big business – the two big partners that would otherwise help us speed up this transformation process.
Twenty years ago Wiphold was a young, small company, with no pre-1994 baggage, and so could disown all of these uncomfortable issues.
Today, we are no longer in a position to claim this kind of innocence and ignorance.
We are a big business, fully facilitated by the enabling policies of the government.
Specifically on the matter of gender policy, we have to acknowledge that the ANC has one of the most well-articulated gender policies in the world – a hard-won battle by all the strong women and mothers who came before us.
Like most policies, this one too could have gathered dust on the shelves of Parliament, had it not especially been for President Thabo Mbeki in his almost 15 years in office, as both president and deputy president.
The architect of transformation, Mbeki championed the case for women to be recognised as a necessary instrument for change, if South Africa was going to reach its full potential.
We thank him specifically for giving we women of South Africa our dignity and self-esteem.
Mindful of the fact that this may not last forever, we designed ourselves as an institution, in such a way that we could survive all manner of regimes.
Just like the apartheid system, we wanted to ensure that it would be as difficult to untie the Wiphold knots. Most important, it has a life beyond its founders and is very difficult to destroy.
The choice of sectors to focus on in our operational model was selected with this in mind.
Because this sector directs the financial resources of a country, it does dictate the direction in which the economy goes.
Of particular interest to us is the issue of lack of access to financial services, particularly for women – which carries the possibility of perpetuating their poverty.
It was necessary that we involved ourselves operationally in this sector.
We are, therefore, privileged to be partnered by Old Mutual, Nedbank and Mutual & Federal.
After six years of hard work and thorough market assessment, we have started building a cement plant in Koedoeskop in Limpopo, estimated to be commissioned in 2016.
Mindful of the known attitude of this sector towards women, we have decided to invite ourselves to this all-male party and possibly disrupt it constructively.
Partnered with Jidong, the fourth-largest cement producer in the world and second-largest in China, who are also builders of cement plants, we are confident that we will be able to change the conversations in the boardrooms of this otherwise not-so-inclusive sector.
We have understood this sector to be critical for the South African economy.
Having acquired 20 percent of Sasol Mining, together with Sasol, we are looking for a coal operation which can be managed and controlled by women.
We will also take positions in other strategic sectors where we may not necessarily be operational.
As a big business, we are also now expected to play our part as a social change agent, to partner the government as it attempts to undo this horrible history of ours.
To this effect we have decided on two areas in which we are capable of making a meaningful impact – education and agriculture.
We want to confront the reality of a food security problem not only in South Africa, but in the rest of the world.
South Africa has massive amounts of communal land, owned by communities that are not in a position to access finance and the necessary business networks for processing and market offtakes.
This agricultural programme will cover all our Imbizo sites in Eastern Cape, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and with the assistance of Sasbo, the banking union, in KZN.
We have understood these three provinces to be in most need of attention in the area of food security. The intention is to get involved in land usage from crops to processing and livestock.
Our first 1 000ha of maize will be in Centani, Eastern Cape, in the maize season of 2014, where our social mobilisation and relationship with the traditional leadership and communities is at its strongest.
The area being farmed in Centani is Thuthura, which is the maize belt of the Eastern Cape, as is Matatiele.
In partnership with the Masisizane Fund a maize mill plant will be constructed with a capacity of two tons an hour of super, special maize.
Thirty percent of the by- product is animal feed.
With our own base capital of R20 million, we have established a strong partnership with Nedbank for funding, Technoserve for technical support, especially on contract management and off-take arrangements, Omnia for inputs and co-operation with Masisizane on the processing side.
We have the courage to do this because of our strong and sustainable relationship with the traditional leaders and the communities.
And so our measure of success will be when we can claim to have dealt decisively with poverty and hunger in Acornhoek, Lusikisiki, Mount Frere, Centani, Elliotdale, Ndwedwe, Maphumulo and others. Even more, it will be when we can say we have succeeded in converting communal land into a bankable asset.
On education, we are lucky to have in our midst Kagiso Trust, which has been at this for 15 years plus.
According to the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report of 2014, out of 148 countries, South Africa ranks first in terms of its stock exchange and auditing standards, second in financial services, and third regarding the soundness of banks.
We are also in the Top 50 in terms of infrastructure such as roads, rail, ports and aviation, which ranks eleventh.
To maintain these standards and rankings requires a strong pipeline from the education system.
But, out of 148 countries, South Africa is ranked last in terms of the quality of maths and science, 146th for the quality of the education system and 133rd for the quality of primary education.
At these levels, being last in the world, we are not in a position to produce the required pipeline and also risk the collapse of the best of us in the long term, if not sooner.
To deal with the above challenge we have decided to scale up our involvement in education by participating with schools directly.
The emphasis is on the quality of the teacher, especially in specific subjects like maths and science.
At least R5m will be set aside for Maboboti Senior Secondary School and Dondashe Senior Secondary School, in Centani, Eastern Cape, and Moroka in Free State.
Entering the Eastern Cape school system perhaps requires some courage – groups with the best intentions and big financial resources to help with education have given up on the Eastern Cape, for lack of meaningful support from the Eastern Cape government.
The future of Wiphold is particularly exciting.
We have built an institution which will outlast the founders – we have given of our best to interpret to ourselves what a sustainable BEE company should look like.
* This is an edited version of a speech by Serobe, founding member and executive director of Wiphold and chief executive of Wipcapital, on the occasion of the company’s 20th birthday celebration last week.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.