Acouple of weeks ago I was at my local pub enjoying a few rounds of South Africa’s favourite alcoholic beverage, as is the norm. I ended up in an intense conversation with two of the pub regulars. The one is a hotshot marketing executive and the other is a successful businessman.
As is often the case when you have conversations with black South Africans who are in the corporate sector or are running their own business, we started off talking about the lack of transformation among South African corporates, with both of them sharing stories of ridiculous window-dressing by corporates in order to appear to be transforming, whereas the actual reality is that nothing much has changed after almost two decades of black majority rule.
While these sentiments were not new to me as I hear them in almost every conversation I have with black corporates, there was a sentiment expressed by one of these guys that deviated from the status quo and piqued my interest. This was the sentiment that “black business has failed the people of South Africa”. It all began with a critique of black organisations like the Black Management Forum (BMF), which was accused of being nothing more than a tool for certain black corporate leaders to position themselves for key positions within the South African corporate sector and once this has been achieved those individuals then forget about the issues that affect the rest of black South Africa. He contrasted this with organisations like Afriforum and the Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut, which are clear in their promotion of the interests of Afrikaner people and their culture and not just certain individuals within that people group, as we see in black organisations like the BMF and the Black Business Council (BBC).
The conversation then moved on to the issue of the failure of successful black business people to invest in black communities: to help build infrastructure, deliver quality education, promote entrepreneurship and improve services. What we are seeing instead is black business people aggressively chasing profits and wealth at whatever cost without contributing as much as they could to address the developmental needs of the country. In fact a lot of the time we see the self-same business people pushing for government to enforce employment equity and affirmative action legislation because it benefits them and their narrow sectional interests, without in any way contributing to improving the lot of the impoverished black majority.
Contrast this with Afrikaner business people and the contribution they made to the development of Afrikaner people once the National Party had taken over the running of the country in 1948.
Contrary to popular opinion there is actually nothing wrong with prominent black business people using their political connections to grow their businesses and improve their profits. This is exactly how great Afrikaner entrepreneurs emerged and became extremely wealthy, however the significant difference has been that they invested in education, cultural initiatives and other things that contributed to the development of their people, while using the state and their connections to the National Party to build their wealth. We are not seeing the same level of commitment from black business in contemporary South Africa.
We need to start demanding more from black business. What contribution is black business making to the improvement of education in our country for example?
How much is black business investing in impoverished black communities so we can see more development? What is black business doing to try and help address the housing backlog in our country? What infrastructure is black business building in poor black communities in order to improve the quality of life of the average black South African and create better conditions for the success of our people?
These are all questions that need to be posed to black business in South Africa. Black business needs to heed the words of a great American entrepreneur, Harvey Firestone, “a man who isn’t willing to share his success with others won’t have much success to put in his own pocket.”