Can We Save South Africa Without Saving B-BBEE From Corrupt ANC Factions?
It’s difficult to have a business without a country or a functioning economy without some kind of business. Most countries worth doing business in are wracked with discussions on race, power and privilege — and disruptions caused by COVID-19.
A country is to a business’s profits and strategy what the earth beneath a house is to its foundation: any wise builder will survey the soil on a plot before deciding what structure to erect on it. Let’s then look at watering the grass where we are instead of imagining it’s greener on some side (it isn’t: our Rand is demonstrably the world’s most undervalued currency, so our businesses are importing from a position of artificial weakness).
In her article titled, This is how South Africa became a criminal state, Helen Zille writes, “Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE), as conceptualised and implemented by the ANC, made corruption legal and morally acceptable.” The qualifier in the parentheses — “as conceptualised and implemented by the ANC” — leaves a gap between B-BBEE itself and B-BBEE in the ANC’s hands.
In that gap is the South Africa Nelson Mandela envisioned when he forgave his jailors and compromised on immediate economic reform, preventing (or postponing) a bloodbath. But we can’t rule out that he believed in the necessity of economic redress without invalidating his forgiveness because saying there are no reparations owed to black people is saying there was nothing for Mandela to forgive.
Until we can square our reverence for Mandela with the logic of reparations, South Africans will listen to any voice promising race-based economic redress no matter how many lies it tells with those promises, just as they’ll ignore any voice that hesitates to say race-based economic redress policies are important no matter how accurate it may be on everything else.
While Zille is correct that the ANC perverted B-BBEE implementation by undermining the “broad” part of it, she’s mistaken that the ANC conceptualised B-BBEE. Political Economist Moeletsi Mbeki has given analyses at BEE Novation’s and Daily Maverick’s webinars on the origins of B-BBEE: it wasn’t an ANC initiative.
If you’re reading this from the private sector, B-BBEE is more your intellectual property than the ANC’s, though it’s generating revenue for the party. One need not look further afield than the Tripartite Alliance (ANC, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions) to remember that the ANC’s initial nationalisation platform still holds sway amongst its supporters. B-BBEE was invented to protect the interests of capital and pre-empt nationalisation.
Are there business-friendly alternatives to B-BBEE? The DA thinks race-based economic redress policy can be exchanged for more precise social welfare policy instruments that target poverty without making race a proxy for disadvantage. But that raises red flags in black people’s minds because while it makes sense to have surgery-grade policy instruments to polish off the task of soothing inequality, that inequality is still great enough, racialised enough and enmeshed in enough socialisation and structural racism (the “intersectionality of oppressions”) to justify dynamite now and precision later. This position also suggests the beneficiaries of old race-based policies don’t want to be reminded that that’s what they are. De-racialising economic redress policy in post-apartheid South Africa is the erasure of black people.
We need a critical mass of white business-people (and foreign investors) to ask themselves the question, “How can we use B-BBEE to achieve inclusive economic growth?” Until a critical mass of black people are involved in the mainstream economy, they won’t have reason to prioritise it when they engage politicians. The outcome of exclusionary economic patterns is protests, rioting and damage to property (both private and public) instead of economy-centred civic engagement and voting choices.
Political commentators Eusebius Mckaiser and Karima Brown had a discussion about President Cyril Ramaphosa’s letter to ANC leaders and members. There, a commenter suggested electoral reform would end corruption. Mckaiser responded it would help to an extent, but systems are means to ends permitted by culture. Do we really want our demonstrably white male captains of industry and our demonstrably black voting majority agreeing that it’s okay for our political leaders to ignore or abuse the “broad” part of B-BBEE? Far from being an aberration of political culture, ANC corruption is a product of this unspoken agreement.
“Where do we begin saving South Africa?” many wonder. We start at saving the conceptualisation of B-BBEE from the ANC’s implementation of B-BBEE. But as long as we assume B-BBEE is synonymous with the ANC, it’ll continue being their fig leaf for price inflation and distorted procurement processes.