After the resignations of CEOs from Eskom and SAA in 2019, and the suspension, which later became a dismissal, of Old Mutual CEO by the board, all in a very short interval, there were serious lamentations that black executives were either being purged (in the case of SOEs) or unwanted. The Clicks saga again brings back the spotlight on black executives and their role in furtherance of the black agenda and transformation in Corporate South Africa. At Clicks, not only is the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) a significant shareholder but the company also has a black CEO. Possibly, there are black executives and managers in other levels of the organisation as well.
Ordinarily, one would expect that such things as racial stereotyping, discrimination and racism would be guarded by the PIC, which lacks shareholder activism, and black board members and executives. This task has been relegated to the Commission for Employment Equity to raise issues while black executives bury their heads in the sand. Unfortunately, the Commission itself is in the game of numbers, which means such things as corporate culture receive less attention in South Africa. In as much as the cries about the difficulties of black executives in both public and private sectors are understandable, my view on this topic is slightly different and l seriously think there is no reason to shed a tear when these executives face difficulties.
I am also of the view that they are sleeping on duty; they lack the spirit of a shop-stewardship at corporate governance level especially on matters of racism and other forms of discrimination in South African organisations. It is therefore necessary to ask one broad question: Who do black executives represent and what do they stand for? It seems that in their heads they got there purely on ‘merit’ and therefore they do not account to anyone. Strangely, they forget that they are primary recipients of generous political laws that the country passed after 1994 to transform the South African society. Today, black executives would want to make the whole world believe that they got there in their own steam and effort.
They point to Harvard, UCT and INSEAD business degrees as the sole reason for their ascent. This in part explains their indifferent attitudes to challenges facing blacks in the corporate sector and society as a whole. As a result, black executives behave like an autonomous enclave of the broader black community. They are African elites after all. As political economist Moeletsi Mbeki puts it, Africa has probably the most selfish middle and upper classes in the world. Whether it is in politics or business, black elites are too self-centred, narcissistic, and uncaring. South African black executives are not different, they are only interested in themselves alone and everything else does not matter. Imagine an Africa with a committed and involved upper class, our countries would not be a ‘sh*thole’ that they are today.
When people make it to the top they rarely acknowledge the backing of the community that raised them. For them, they see their success as a personal achievement and do not ascribe their success to endeavors by their community to get them where they are. Furthermore, they are inward looking and are only interested in gaining acceptance and assimilation by the white corporate classes. In short, black executives and managers who are in powerful positions hardly attempt to change organizational cultures, or to influence public discourses. They are happy to surround themselves with people of other races but their own. They feel like little kings of wealthy Babylonia who cannot be bothered about what is happening in their surroundings.
These executives derive maximum benefit from the hue of their skin, which in turn affords them access to laws created to achieve redress in Corporate South Africa, and the economy at large. But once they are inside only their interests come first and they act like their white colleagues, if not worse. They thrive to appear in the front pages of magazines and newspapers that portray them as high achievers. In the Zulu language there is a saying that “Indlu ye gagu iyanetha” (The hut of a bold person leaks). This means black executives are proud to display their wealth and success amidst tons of problems that face the majority of the black population.
A German or Japanese corporate executive sees himself as an extension of his community. He therefore understands that his progress determines overall success for all people. Black executives appear black but act like members of the dominant races whose culture is prevalent in Corporate South Africa. Whether this comes from instinct to survive or pure assimilation, black executives have been a serious weak link in efforts to transform institutions in South Africa. Former president Thabo Mbeki could be disappointed that this quest to establish a black bourgeoisie is not getting the support from the selected ones, including the black executives. There is no sense that suggests that black executives are adequately equipped to fly the ‘black flag’ very high, if outcries about their ‘abuses’ by the establishment are anything to go with. However, what is clear is that they tend to close the door behind them as they reach to the top.
Nobody can dispute that they lack the necessary national consciousness or activism and drive that is necessary to influence, not just appointments, but also how organizations think and function. Black executives across sectors have been disappointingly quiet on the Clicks and many other scandals involving the uncooperative members of the ever boisterous and triumphant South African capital clergy. Corporate culture in South Africa, not just in private sector but also in public institutions, has no semblance of what would be referred to as black culture. The system is designed to push out black employees and clients. For Corporate South Africa, black lives do not matter. After many years of corruption such as stealing black labour and trampling on rights of blacks, as it occurred in Marikana in 2012, there is no hope that this country will ever open a new chapter in how it conducts its business.
The fall of the likes of Siyabonga Gama, Matshela Koko, Lucky Montana, Dudu Myeni and Brian Molefe continues to be portrayed as a general failure by blacks to manage. For some, the problems at SOEs are a function of black incompetence. Since black executives act like demigods nobody knows exactly what is happening in boardrooms. Their silence on many of these and other issues is a serious concern. Black executives do not want to break rank and expose acts of racism and other forms of discrimination in fear losing their chance to “eat”. Understandably, companies have outrageous secrecy clauses in their policies that are meant to intimidate and silence dissenters. Racist and corrupt practices cannot be exposed as part of observing the code. On the other hand, evergreen contracts in state organizations like Eskom that gave white companies exclusivity are not seen as corruption but as good business practice.
Billions of rands from the fiscus to support white companies are reported as proper. It is for the reason that the minister of small business development declared that a large chunk of the funds which are part of the R200-billion guaranteed-loans and the R1-billion scheme for SMMEs went to white-owned businesses. Corruption at Bosasa or Steinhoff is individualized and is not given to the entire white race to share like it is done with other corruptions done by blacks. Hence, Helen Zille’s ‘black privilege’ comment. Apartheid and colonial stereotypes about blacks as savages, incompetent and clueless people that cannot think refuse to go away. Instead of fixing this, fairly or unfairly, black executives have done nothing or little to change these dangerous perspectives.
Whether it is their making or not, black workers at lower levels feel let down by their own. The presence of blacks in boardrooms and management has always been about positions rather than overhauling the culture that is hostile to the black family. So, when black executives have nowhere to turn, and even when things are good they have not guts to advance a progressive agenda. Again, the likes of BMF and BBC, and even BUSA, seem preoccupied with matters that show little support for workers at lower levels. It is all about wanting to open spaces for a small clique of privileged blacks to get to positions. These bodies are concerned with drawing a benefit from either cushy positions or government contracts. Their existence is defined by their selfish belief that they are the only ones who deserve to forge ahead while the rest of the black population remains behind and nowhere to go.
This was even more evident with the coronavirus funds, the black organizations correctly complained that they were overlooked in tenders. But they do not say much about whether these funds benefit the black community or not. The truth is that whomever that we hold high as leaders in the corporate world seems to have other ideas about what they should be doing. For example, former public protector Thuli Madonsela sees the Clicks disregard for blacks as mere “unconscious bias”. And in his apology, Clicks Group CEO said he was “deeply disappointed and apologise for the images.” None of them take a resolute stance against racism but see the Clicks matter as a once-off minor problem. This is unsurprising in a country where there are good blacks and bad blacks. Why don’t we hear from the supposedly influential blacks in high ranks of business taking strong positions on lack of transformation and/or toxic corporate culture that keeps blacks as clerks and janitors?
To this point all BEE credits and equity figures are often clouded by the sad reality that shows fewer blacks as decision makers and the majority as security guards, cleaners, and receptionists. The agenda of organizations like BMF, BBC and BUSA has to drastically change. These institutions, amongst others, have to work strategies that ensure that black executives really do what we are always told they are supposed to do, that is to advance an agenda that promotes social justice, and restoration of black dignity at all times. Many young and middle black managers suffer in the hands of fellow blacks in executive positions. They ill-treat them. They harass them physically or sexually. They overlook them in promotions.
Overall, black workers and customers are treated with disdain. Black executives are complicit to corporate rules that still advance apartheid and colonial thinking about blacks. In this regard, there is no evidence that black executives have created any structures whose sole purpose is to discuss issues or frustrations that confront blacks in the workplace. If there are any, then these have largely been well-kept secret. Many black executives have possibly been used by powerful groups in the economy, perhaps with or without their knowledge, to advance certain agendas. For as long as this is the case, there is a long way to go. One advice to black executives from our Batswana ancestors says, “O seke wa nyela sediba” (When you cross the river do not foul it because you might have to drink from it again).
Siya yi banga le economy!