ANDILE KHUMALO: The unvarnished truth about BEE
If you ever get to wish for something valuable in the workplace, ask for intelligent colleagues - preferably much more intelligent than you.
Working with smart people is not only good for team dynamics and strength, but also for your own personal growth. That is because really intelligent people compel you to up your game and question ideas that could've made you sound really smart at your friend's dinner table, but not so much in the boardroom.
I had that very experience when I read an interview with my colleague Lebo Masilela, who holds a BCom in industrial psychology and has worked in various industries, including fast-moving consumer goods, banking, construction and advertising.
Asked for her views on the status quo of transformation in SA, Lebo bluntly notes that the fundamental problem with transformation is that everyone is obsessed with achieving "the much-coveted level 1", often at all costs.
There's nothing wrong with wanting the best level, but more care needs to be taken on how that level is attained.
"I am encouraged when I see first-time graduates from a family emerge due to funds from a scorecard initiative, an SME winning a pitch due to a traditionally white-owned business facilitating this, and lives changed due to dividends flowing to people who have worked for a business for many years.
"The tediousness does come in during the verification preparation where scores are closely monitored, money is topical and conversations revolve around ensuring that we are not missing the opportunity to be a level 1 contributor.
"Saddening, also, is the perception, in my experience, of the very thin line between genuine transformation and borderline fronting," says Lebo
"I understand that it may be extremely hard for a business owner to sacrifice some of their personal income and assets for whatever reason. The reality, however, is that the longer we take to redress the past, the longer this act will remain in place and the more stringent it will become over the next few years."
This is the moment I felt like shouting "Viva!"
Lebo's point is so insightful. Put differently, if the "haves" continue to resist sharing meaningful economic opportunity with the "have-nots", they will have only themselves to blame when BEE legislation gets tighter and more aggressive in compelling a transfer of wealth, which, in SA's case, is from white people to black people. Basically, die verkrampte are fooling only themselves and no-one else.
But the relevant question is: "What ought to be done?" My quick-witted colleague went straight for a perspective she owns - unapologetically.
"As a black woman, I should be primed to be on the receiving end of transformation benefits. My truth, though, is that we're not there yet. The possibility of considering gender above race, as a relevant diversity dimension, is not top of mind yet."
Is race more important than gender? Should it be Black Woman Economic Empowerment ahead of Black Man Economic Empowerment?
Surely if we follow the realities of our political past, no-one can argue that the black woman was by far the single most disadvantaged individual in virtually every economic opportunity - and to a large extent she still is.
Does it not follow, then, that black women should be at the forefront of any legislation that seeks to redress the injustices of the past?
But when all is said and done, this transformation project doesn't work if there is no willingness from those carrying the most powerful leverage: wealth. They must want transformation. They must see the benefit - even selfishly, to themselves - of a more equal society.
Making the point in the way only Lebo can, she tells of an expatriate who arrived in SA three years ago, and, within the first year, had already learnt to speak Zulu and Sotho fluently.
"I couldn't help but feel that some of our white counterparts have afforded themselves such favour that they do not see the need to expose themselves to a truly African experience, in an African country.
"How sad that they will never know that heitais more than a greeting between people who respect each other."
I'm so glad she's on my side.
• Khumalo is an entrepreneur and a CA (SA)