Since the dawn of democracy in South Africa, writers have always inappropriately used the label to characterise a South African black business hero. Too often, they tag it on to a young Icarus who later comes crushing down to Earth after some ephemeral success or to a so-called Master of the Universe with the ability to descent from a corporate perch by way of a golden parachute.
The tangled skeins of BEE are difficult to unravel; however, political economist Moeletsi Mbeki was determined to make sense of it in a nail-biting interview. Mbeki argued that the BEE concept was conceived by the big white corporations to dull the effects of political radicalism on South Africans.
The corporates assimilated powerful black leaders and bore them up in their corporate arms by exempting them from injecting any start-up capital. The “BE Titans” resembled sailors, and the white corporations enchanted them. One surmises that the enchanter captured BE Titans with the song, “Come on, we have trod the path before you, we know its roughness, and we know the uphill pull. We know the plain – so clear and smiling – can suddenly be transmuted into a mountain to climb.”
As Kwame Nkrumah once said, it is difficult to out-strategise a capitalist, he will eventually win you over to his side. Some would assert that the evolution of the ventures was a function of zeitgeist. This is not for me to answer.
There is something intrinsically right and superbly precious about being an entrepreneur. However, black entrepreneurs who never benefited from the BEE scheme find it increasingly difficult to survive economically. Covid-19 gripped the nation. The business community and most business people were caught in the vice. Some of us believe that the Covid-19 shadow had departed and the mists have rolled away.
The effects of Covid-19 are felt by bootstrappers who have not grown beyond the mom-and-pop status. Most of whom have been blacklisted by credit bureaus. For example, a friend who is in the construction business issued invoices to one of the government departments last year. He has not yet been paid because his clients have a cash flow challenge. As a result, he cannot pay his employees and he cannot pay his creditors since the source of his income is one-streamed.
He was held hostage by his employees last week until he adroitly manoeuvred and escaped after the police were called in. To add insult to injury, he does not qualify for a bank loan to pay his debt because he does not earn a stable income. The banks use the box approach; they are guided by rules and not reason. Small and medium businesses are there to create employment but if they lack capital, diminished access and suffer outright racism, how are we going to solve the problem of crime and unemployment in the country?
I agree that entrepreneurship is something personal. It is what you can do almost to yourself but in times of financial crises, you need solidarity to survive. It is time that black businesspersons benchmarked with the Indian and Jewish communities. Solidarity, as an added value, is not taught at Harvard Business School.
It is time bootstrappers collaborated with family and friends who are earning a stable income, with the view to sustaining themselves and their businesses. We happen to be in the same boat; if the boat sinks, we will all sink. We need to approach entrepreneurship like an angry sea. Perhaps business school must introduce a course called “solidarityship”. I guess Zacchaeus’ repentance was motivated by the sense of belonging. He was hated and isolated by his community.
Black Americans also faced challenges by virtue of their pigmentation. John H Johnson, the founder of Johnson Publishing Company, also suffered active racism. He set out to the Chicago’s First National Bank to apply for a loan. A loan officer contemptuously referred him as “boy” and informed him that the institution would never lend him money.
He was bitter but he took a page from Dale Carnegie: Do not get mad, get smart. His advice is instructive: “If you cannot gain help from others, you have to figure out what you can do by yourself, to get what you want.”
I can see that now we are obsessed with the election, but the election alone will not make us seasoned entrepreneurs, open all the doors, create employment or abolish poverty.
Our society needs to produce seasoned entrepreneurs such as AG Gaston who travelled a solitary road of entrepreneurship. He used every arrow in his quiver to transform his community before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He launched Booker T Washington Insurance Company in 1932 and the Citizens Federal Savings Bank in 1951 to serve black consumers shunned by white institutions.
Steadfastness would eventually win out over racism and corruption. Like Zacchaeus, let us forgive the BE Titans and open a new page of entrepreneurship for the common good of our society. I religiously hope that they will also have the conscience of Zacchaeus to give back to the poor.
Author and life coach Mathebula has a PhD in construction management.