Transformation, anyone?

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Transformation is one of those big words that we’ve heard & spoken about for many years. Initially, transformation was only defined as BEE, so we saw white-owned businesses scrambling, albeit begrudgingly,  to find BEE partners – usually silent/invisible partners – who became part owners of their businesses. Next came the staff share schemes for Black employees, with white employees crying reverse racism.

A few years down the line, we realized – to our surprise – that BEE was not working the way that it should and that it was largely only benefitting a privileged few with millions and a few billions here and there. So we went back to the drawing board.

Now we’ve added more letters of the alphabet and are talking about BBBEE and what qualifies organisations to be classified according to each level. And because all these transformation attempts are governed by legislation, many businesses do the bare minimum in order to tick the boxes & be compliant, also known as negative compliance. Some don’t even bother because they “don’t do business with government”, so why should they burden themselves with inconvenience of equity and equality for their Black employees?

But does ticking the boxes mean that these organisations are truly transformed? Transformation extends far beyond “giving” a percentage of ownership to Black people. It goes far beyond employing more Black people. It goes far beyond promoting more Black people to senior positions. Here’s why:

1. Black people are still walking into hostile environments daily because the drive for equality, equity & transformation is still seen as a move to disadvantage white people. White people who refuse to acknowledge their privilege or use it to advance justice for Black people.

2. Black professionals are still being required to train unqualified white people who are then promoted to senior roles ahead of the Black people who trained them.

3. We are unable to implement legislations such as equal pay for work of equal value because we are unable to get corporates to be transparent because they have a low appetite for fairness, equality, reparations or just doing the right thing.

4. We have executive rooms filled with mostly white people making decisions about Black people’s needs, values and circumstances & rooms full of men & white women deciding the same for Black women.

5. We have solid legislations that fail us because they aren’t implemented effectively & diligently.
6. Where Black professionals are promoted to executive positions, they are not given any real organisational power/authority that will put the status quo at risk.

The problem we have is that we are trying to negotiate with people who view justice as a disadvantage or infringement upon their rights. People who manipulate currencies & get away with it. People who charge Black people higher interest rates purely on the basis of the colour of their skins. People who believe that what they have is because they worked hard for it, completely ignoring the 400yr head-start they had at the expense of our ancestors. People who have IT systems set up to conduct assessments that are engineered to have a bias against input triggers such as race and where you live because apartheid spatial planning still haunts Black people. We are still suffering from the effects of the most vicious crimes against our humanity, but we’ll be told to get over it because it was a long time ago.

What is clear is that our view of transformation is far too narrow for us to actually make any real, lasting progress. Meaningful transformation requires a complete overhaul of business structures, practices, policies, methods, culture, reporting, governance, language, biases, recruitment processes, remuneration, people practices (HR), technology cues – EVERYTHING. In addition to all that, it requires the reintroduction of ethics, something that has long been tossed out of businesses as they tango their way around legislation with the least amount of friction possible.

Transformation must be disruptive. Which means it will result in massive resistance. We should expect that, but not be deterred by it. We’re spending far too much time tiptoeing around issues because we don’t want to cause too much disruption or destabilize the Rand or scare away investors. White people. And all of this is at the expense of Black people.

If we’re serious about re-engineering Corporate South Africa, we need to be clear about the entire scope of work from the get-go, so that the plans developed and implemented are reflective of all barriers with solutions to address each and every one of them decisively.

We cannot continue to be used as pawns in organisations that thrive off our skills, sweat and tears. We cannot, in the next 25yrs, still be debating a new version of BBBEE or why Black CEO’s must be Co-CEO’s first or why Black women are only made CEO’s when organisations are undergoing a reputational crisis.

White people, white industries & white organisations are not going to self-regulate or self-correct. And while we’re busy pandering to placate their white fragility & threats to leave the country or hurt the economy, they continue to thrive & we continue to die.

In the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jnr:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

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Sihle Bolani

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