OPINION: Black individuals and black businesses, steeped in a history of exclusion, continue to operate on an uneven playing field... The question that should be keeping the sector and government awake at night is for how much longer will black South Africans put up with being on the peripheries of their own economy, writes Kim Heller.
Twenty-eight years into democracy, South Africa’s financial services sector is still battling with “the business” of transformation.
The resistance of banks and other financial institutions to the Financial Sector Charter and attempts to denude it, particularly on issues of control and ownership, exemplified the sectors’ reluctance to fully embrace transformation as a pressing imperative.
A chief contributor to GDP and job creation, South Africa’s financial services sector is vital to the country’s overall economic health and well-being.
The sector’s slow pace of transformation hinders the nation’s collective effort to reverse and remedy the historical legacy of economic dislodgement and exclusion of black South Africans.
A 2017 study, by the World Inequality Lab, found no evidence that wealth inequality had decreased since the end of apartheid. The study found that “wealth inequality had remained remarkably stable” and that “asset allocations before 1993 still continue to shape wealth inequality”.
It was likely, the study showed, that the richest 1% in South Africa had increased their share of wealth since the end of apartheid.
The slow pace of transformation of the sector cannot be blamed solely on the intransigence of the key players in the industry whose interests are, after all, vested in the status quo.
The governing party itself with its ever-fluctuating, almost schizophrenic economic policies, and inability to stand up to white capital has placed the transformation agenda on shaky ground.
In the Foreword to the 2019 Transformation in Banking Report, Kuben Pillay, deputy governor and CEO of Prudential Authority, at the SA Reserve Bank, wrote that transformation of the South African financial system is “a story of slow, steady, meaningful and deep progress across a wide range of fronts.”
“It is not a story of complete failure” Naidoo wrote “but neither is it a story of complete success. It is a story of progress”.
But for most black South Africans who remain economically and financially excluded and prejudiced, it is a sad tale indeed. The economic dislocation of black South Africans in current day South Africa is a far cry from the storybook vision of an equitable and just society, as envisaged in the Constitution.
The impassioned falsetto of the 1955 Freedom Charter that “the national wealth of our country, the heritage of all South Africans, shall be restored to the people, wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole” is little more than a hollow echo in real-day, real-time South Africa.
For most black South Africans today, the “do not enter” sign is still very much in place when it comes to meaningful economic access, participation, and ownership.
“Banks have never loved the colour black.” These words were penned by South African author Angela Banks, in her chapter in Niq Mhlongo’s book ‘“Black Tax: Burden or Ubuntu?” published in 2019.
She continues with piercing honesty: “The truth is that for centuries, black South Africans have battled to access finance.”
It appears as if there is a case to be made that black South Africans are treated as second-rate citizens in this sector. In 2019, the EFF called for a judicial inquiry into alleged racial discriminatory practices by banks.
In an article published in Sowetan on 12 March 2019, the EFF’s Mbuyiseni Ndlozi said: “EFF is well aware that it is not only banks that discriminate against black people and charge them high interest. The whole financial sector thrives on exploiting black people.
“Black people are charged high rates for funeral cover‚ life cover‚ motor insurance and all other forms of financial products – only because they are black.”
He also spoke of how when black people fall into financial difficulties‚ banks are quick to repossess their products‚ while white people are given enough time to make arrangements without losing their properties.
Just last month, Godrich Gardee Attorneys, representing over 6 000 South Africans, launched a class action suit against South African banks and financial institutions for alleged racial and other discrimination.
This ground-breaking litigation may prove to be not only an important pressure test for our constitutional democracy but could have a material impact on the transformation trajectory of the sector.
Earlier this week, in what appears to be a push for accelerated financial inclusion, the Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA) published a draft version of its transformation strategy for the sector, for public comment.
Proposed legislative changes, which could result in administrative penalties on companies that fail to meet transformation targets, is a welcome but inadequate step.
The strategy proposed by the FSCA, which pivots on financial inclusivity rather than financial transformation, is also wholly inadequate. It deflects and distracts from the legitimate and necessary demands for fundamental transformation of the sector.
A strategy focused on financial inclusion is a problematic starting point for it implies that there is nothing inherently wrong with the system and that all that is required is greater black inclusivity and participation.
The truth is that the system is flawed because the fundamentals of the sector, so heavily invested the build, caretake and preservation of white power under apartheid, remain untransformed.
The world class re-branding of some apartheid birthed and nurtured financial service institutions, the enthusiastic expansion of products and services to black South Africans and the tick-box compliance of BBEE scorecards does not equate to real transformation of the sector.
At a glance, the optics may look good. There is no shortage of highly accomplished black business people in management, leadership, and boards positions.
Greater services, products and accessibility are now part and parcel of the “today, tomorrow, together” business modelling of the sector. Billions are spent on black skills development.
But the 2020 Transformation in Banking Report shows how black economic interest and control remain low and how black ownership appears to be declining. Black individuals and black businesses, steeped in a history of exclusion, continue to operate on an uneven playing field.
Access to finance and capital remains a serious impediment. They cannot compete with white individuals and white businesses who have generations of capital, and ready enabling networks and access. The stark reality of the day is that the financial services sector continues to prop up white economic power.
The ANC’s failure to dismantle the deeply set white power, influence, and interests in the sector, has jeopardised the build of broad-based economic black wealth and wellbeing. And the revolutionary red of ANC’s alliance partners, SACP and Cosatu, is nowhere in sight.
The question that should be keeping the sector and government awake at night is for how much longer will black South Africans put up with being on the peripheries of their own economy.
* Heller is the author of No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.