Time to rethink empowerment concepts and aim for growth

South Africans should focus more on individual agency, and less on legislative solutions, as the key to building black economic power

05 December 2021 - 00:00 By Shilumana Given Mkhari
Thabo Mbeki once said SA was two nations: one privileged and white, one poor and black. Today, as black South Africans still queue for social grants, not much has changed says the writer.
Thabo Mbeki once said SA was two nations: one privileged and white, one poor and black. Today, as black South Africans still queue for social grants, not much has changed says the writer.
Image: Lulamile Feni

In May 1998, Thabo Mbeki, then deputy president,  triggered a national debate when he referred to SA as a country of two nations — one white and wealthy, the other black and poor.

People’s reactions were largely determined by the “nations” into which they belonged. Those from the privileged “nation” complained that Mbeki was trying to shatter the rainbow nation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Their response was understandable: they had something to defend.

From the poor “nation” there were people who said the deputy president was merely pointing out the obvious. Indeed, from this perspective, SA had a long way to go to merge the two nations into one.

Of course, SA is too complex to define in these terms. One can say with certainty that the fates of the so-called two nations are inextricably linked. Yet, it is difficult to discredit Mbeki’s thesis in its broad sense.

What was crucial about Mbeki’s contribution to the debate was that, as  one of the architects of the new democratic order,  he was speaking from a platform of power.  He had an obligation to point out the cracks on the road to genuine nation building. His analysis is as relevant today as it was then.

Fast-forward to today and there is talk about “inclusive growth”, “radical economic transformation” and other catch phrases. At the heart of these is the suggestion that, for a long time, growth has served only to enrich one section of the population while leaving crumbs or nothing for the rest.

The debates about exclusion and inclusion are focused mainly on the structure of the economy. Those who benefit from economic growth are said to be the ones who control the structure, the means of production. The opposite is true of those who are excluded from the ownership structure, or where their inclusion is merely to play a cameo role.

What is often overlooked is the role of agency of citizens. Since 1994,  a plethora of instruments has been introduced to alter the ownership structure of the economy. Legislation has been passed aimed at transforming the structure of the economy. Policymakers during the democratic era were correct to remove legislation designed to systematically exclude black people.

Deliberate empowerment tools were also necessary. Still, no number of instruments — legislative or other —  can displace people’s agency in altering  their circumstances on their own terms. Not even state assistance in the form of grants — necessary as they are as a short-term measure — can do it.

It is the agency issue that could serve as a near-panacea for the problem of exclusion. And this was, in part, the essence of my conversation with Dr Reuel Khoza, respected entrepreneur and intellectual, last week.

An exemplary model of agency himself, he made a complex argument sound simple. It all begins at the level of the individual, actively searching for a goal to pursue. The goal is pursued by way of learning and conquering your limitations. Once these basics are completed, the goal is pursued relentlessly and ambitiously.

It is the agency issue that could serve as a near-panacea for the problem of exclusion

The first part is, in a way, the art of self-mastery for entrepreneurs, and this  leads to the second part — the creation of new institutions based on learnings and capital acquired from a variety of sources. The third step should be the establishment of value-creating networks.

Once institutions have been established — in the form of companies, wealth management funds, advisory firms, manufacturing plants, creative arts formations and so on — entrepreneurs have something more substantive to network with and for. They can network with representatives of any business regardless of race or country of origin.

Remgro chair Johann Rupert, who was my guest in the 2018 edition of The Chairman’s Conversation, stressed the importance of black business people gaining the necessary confidence to do business with business partners of their choice. That confidence comes easily when the one who seeks other networks has a value proposition standing on a platform of a credible institution she or he has established.

Value-creating networks are already happening, but they need scale. Scale can be built by getting more black-owned institutions off the ground. If there’s any radicalism needed in our transformation journey, it is the unleashing of the spirit of entrepreneurship among black people on a massive scale. 

We must end not only structural exclusion, but also self-imposed exclusion. We have to activate the agency within us while simultaneously tackling the structural constraints. By establishing institutions that we can leverage to do deals on an equal footing and expand market access, we can begin to make a serious dent in structural inequalities.

Established businesses from the wealthy “nation” should welcome this so that, in the end, everyone will have something to defend in a single nation.  We should all have tangible wealth and prosperity to lose. Right now, the talk among the excluded is, sadly, about losing hope.

We should all have tangible wealth and prosperity to lose. Right now, the talk among the excluded is, sadly, about losing hope

If we all have something equal to lose, then we can declare that exclusion has ended. And that’s the day when the two nations shall be no more. To begin to gravitate towards that ideal, we should consider interrogating the use of the empowerment concepts that were, in any event, meant to be temporary.

 

Constraints on genuine nation-building emanate partly from the way we imagine things. Our reality is first conceived in our thinking and thereafter articulated in words. Should we not for a moment suspend concepts such as BEE,  affirmative action, inclusive growth and transformation and actively work towards economic normalisation instead?

Normalisation means active sponsorship of those who are willing and able to apply their talents and efforts for both personal and national benefit. It is through this process that we can build one nation — united in both substance and form. I so wish we could put a date to this.

• Mkhari is chair of MSG Afrika Group and a host of the annual Chairman’s Conversation on Power987


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