BEE was introduced to alleviate the sharp divide between those who benefited under the Apartheid government (mostly white males) and those who did not (largely black people). A basic premise is that a large segment of the population had been so disadvantaged all those years that the white minority government ruled this country that without artificial assistance, there wouldn’t be true equality between the previous haves and have-nots. To this end, the government got involved and mandated certain programs to speed up the process. One of these programs provided that people classified as historically disadvantaged be given preference for jobs and contract work. Another program required that companies have a certain proportion of their ownership in the hands of these historically disadvantaged people and did business with similar businesses. This became known as black economic empowerment, or BEE.
The problem with BEE, though, is that it isn’t working the way it is meant to be working. I must just point out that I agree that initiatives like BEE exist to address the inequities of the past and I accept that as a white male, I will be disadvantaged for a decade or two in favour of my non-white male fellow South Africans. What I don’t agree with is the way the beneficiaries of these policies approach these programs. There seems to be a strong sense of entitlement without any sense of responsibility on the part of these beneficiaries. I heard a story related to me about black advocates in chambers in Sandton who are provided with a form of financial assistance to help them get off their feet. As I understand it, these black advocates are paid a certain amount of money each month to ease the financial burden of starting out at the Bar without an income and with a responsibility to pay certain expenses and rather than seizing the opportunity this initiative provides to take as many briefs as they can to establish themselves in a market (ie, attorneys) that is more and more conscious of the need to brief them, some of these advocates don’t accept briefs. They don’t feel the need to work. They are happy to accept a handout from their chambers and do nothing. BEE is wasted on these advocates.
This trend is not isolated. It is evident in almost every industry and can be found wherever a so-called BEE consortium accepts a stake in a business in return for the BEE rating that business gains and yet does nothing to add value to that business. It is evident whenever there is a historically disadvantaged person employed to a good position and yet fails to seize the opportunity that position brings with it to develop skills and grow in ways that were not possible previously. It is characterised by this notion of entitlement to be handed gifts without the responsibility to take advantage of those gifts to achieve the goals of the program, namely an empowered and meaningful participant in the South African economy. When I think about this I am reminded about something my one puppy does each morning. I put out a two step for him to climb up onto the bed if he wants to be on the bed and instead, he sits beside the two step and cries until we pick him up. We have shown him how to climb the steps and he knows how to do it. He has done it a couple times and yet he still sits and cries to be picked up.
Unless the recipients of these initiatives take advantage of the these opportunities in the way they are intended to be taken advantage of, the end result with be an unskilled workforce and a country that is worse off for it. And the next time the fault won’t lie with the white minority, it will lie firmly at the feet of those charged with restoring the balance and who failed miserably.