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Transformation is not just a numbers game

Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) members gathered outside Gauteng Premier David Makhura’s offices in October this year to complain about the lack of socio-economic transformation in the country and the continued neglect of former liberation combatants. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency(ANA)

Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) members gathered outside Gauteng Premier David Makhura’s offices in October this year to complain about the lack of socio-economic transformation in the country and the continued neglect of former liberation combatants. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Dec 14, 2020


By Hadebe Hadebe

One of the biggest, and perhaps the saddest, misconceptions in the post-1994 discourses is the belief that transformation is only about numbers and black faces in the top echelons of an organisation. And it is therefore quite common to hear people get praises for being the first black or first female in a position.

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Twenty-six years after the end of apartheid, the country does not necessarily show any positive and intrinsic change in how it looks and feels. As usual, the ANC is chastised for failing to “transform" the country, including the economy and institutions. Rightly and wrongly, this view has some merit, but it does not give a full picture of what is really happening in South Africa as far as this mysterious transformation is concerned.

At the end of apartheid, there was great excitement in replacing white faces with black faces and all sorts of legislation was enacted including the Employment Equity Act, the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act, etc, to support this goal of numerical targets. However, year after year the transformation stakes are either falling or remain the same.

For example, the Commission for Employment Equity (CEE) in August 2020 reported that “in the private sector, 68.6% of senior and top management positions were held by white people; 12% by black people; 10.6% by Indians; and 5.4% by coloured people.” The public sector is the only place where blacks are supposedly doing better in the game of numbers.

Predictably, these statistics create ructions as people get enraged by how slow the wheels of “transformation” are turning. Others contend that employment equity is constrained by the coronavirus pandemic, the new excuse for everything under the sun, since there are not enough jobs in the offing.

The biggest stumbling block to transformation, however, is not the numbers per se but the failure of the post-apartheid discourses to come up with a deeper meaning of what is intended with transformation in South Africa. So, change in all society is hamstrung by obsession with numbers without really thinking about structural issues when it comes to transformation.

The story of former cricketer Makhaya Ntini a few months ago about his experience in the “first black” contest laid bare the weaknesses of pushing numbers without changing critical things like systems and culture in national cricket. Also, the late Chester Williams complained about deep-seated racism in rugby. Yet, no one quite grasped what these two African men were saying: numbers mean absolutely nothing.

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Scores of people often complain about their growing frustrations in their jobs, companies and professions. The problem is not the lack of numbers but something much deeper and often very hard to describe. This has to do with culture and practices that exclude them and also frustrate their prospects in their respective careers.

Such things as organisational culture and onerous registrations for a number of professions such as chartered accountants, engineers, lawyers, actuaries, etc, have generally been overlooked in this game of numbers. Self-regulating professional bodies serve as a barrier to control entry, and numbers for blacks, to different professions.

Disguised as maintaining “integrity” for the profession, the professional bodies keep moving the goal posts to frustrate or discourage anyone wanting to pursue a certain career.

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Registration and membership costs as well as the small print serve also to limit numbers and protection akin to the Job Reservation Act of 1926, which protected whites from competition with Africans in certain job categories.

Hence, in professions like chartered accountancy getting certificated has become more “valuable” than anything one can imagine. Individuals flaunt the CA suffix behind their names for everyone to see. It is more of a lifetime achievement, as if someone has obtained a ticket to visit heaven. However, the real story rests with frustrations that these individuals have to endure. Organisations do not recognise them even with these so-called highly prized qualifications.

Sociologist Wiseman Magasela wrote as far back as 2000 that “highly educated black professionals working in South Africa struggle against a system that aims to exclude and sideline them”. In exactly 20 years, little has changed as the country insists on numbers and statistics. Blacks remain “invisible” in organisations, irrespective of their numbers, and are expected to assimilate.

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Transformation has become a fuss not only in as far as jobs are concerned but also in the economy at large. Things like BEE are about numbers and have little or nothing to do with effecting structural change. One reason the economy seems to look as it was in 1982 is the failure of numerical targets to create a post-apartheid economy. As a result, BEE has been declared a policy failure.

In any way BEE was never conceived to challenge the status quo but it was created to absorb blacks into a white economy in the same way that the post-apartheid dispensation has done at all levels of society. It is no wonder that no BEE company has emerged to become a serious player and competitor in the South African economy.

Economic change in South Africa was left in the hands of the same people who had not only abused Africans as cheap labour but who also kept them out of the economy for centuries. To understand their attitudes, one needs to draw from the words of late Zairean (now DRC) dictator Mobutu Sese-Seko. In 1991, after receiving the news that the long-time president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, had lost the elections, Mobutu responded: “How stupid! How can you lose an election that you organise?'"

This anecdote explains exactly that white capital was never going to organise a game they would lose. Therefore, they did not mind the numeral targets, but they used systems and structures they control to limit the growth of black economic players in the economy. They are in charge of the factors or means of production such as capital, land, value chains, etc. As such, they control credit that should be used to unlock entrepreneurship and innovation in the economy.

This implies that BEE deliberately omitted transformation of finance and lending institutions in the game of attaining the controversial deals that have taken the economy nowhere. Money in the form of credit or cash is like blood and oxygen to a capitalist system, meaning blacks are supposed to compete without access to capital and markets that monopolies wholly dominate.

In turn, lack of progress has been blamed on trivial issues like transformation and lack of unity among blacks as whites continue to create economic and knowledge enclaves that will only service them. Things like the Afrikaans-only university, AfriForum and extreme racism represent the highest form of exclusion after apartheid, and they are deliberate to strengthen the stranglehold of the minority white race over the South African society.

It is almost preposterous for anyone to suggest that blacks must create their “own” economy and institutions in a country whose character is embedded in racial discrimination dominance and disregard for blacks. Constitutionalism of a racially divided society means that freedom is quickly going to waste.

Blacks do not need to be carried on the shoulders of their former oppressors any longer. They want more, and not numbers. And the answer lies in structures, laws and institutions as well as “soft” interventions.

It is for the reason therefore that the likes of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, and of course the ANC, get a serious backlash for doing little or nothing to change the justice system and laws to facilitate change. Suddenly, it appears that Chief Justice Mogoeng is being criticised for his faith or opinion on vaccines. Not quite. The problem lies in his dismal failure to deliver change in the justice system.

Justice is a public good, but it is not accessible to ordinary South Africans whose marginalisation continues unabated. Equally so, blacks in the legal profession remain outsiders since they find it hard to break through the thick forest. Lack of change in the judicial system and laws is perhaps one of the most serious hurdles to transformation in South Africa.

As a constitutional state, South Africa uses laws in finance, banking, schooling, health and so on to determine who can access political goods and more. Hence, it is fair to interrogate the systematic and structural make-up of South Africa’s much-praised constitutionalism and democracy against the slow pace of progress in changing people’s lives and lack of access to economic opportunities.

In conclusion, the suggestion is that transformation should not only be concerned with numerical targets and statistics. After all, statistics are like miniskirts: They give you good ideas but hide the important things. The important things are systematic and structural. So to achieve transformation does not lie in entrusting gullible black executives, who are beneficiaries of the game of numbers, with this mammoth task. More needs to be done.

A new discourse on what constitutes transformational change is therefore needed in South Africa, not just numbers.

* Hadebe is an independent political analyst who writes in his own capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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