Vincent Zwelibanzi Mntambo
Mosiuoa Lekota - the acting chairman of the Congress of the People - seems to have opened a Pandora's Box when he suggested a review of the policies and implementation of affirmative action and black economic empowerment. Praise and outrage have poured in in almost equal measure since then.
AA and BEE are very emotive subjects. Many will know of how someone they know was denied access to university, a job opportunity or even a right to conduct business only because of the colour of their skin. To add ridicule to these insults, the texture of our hair was further used to discriminate and or differentiate between the oppressed groups.
No doubt the imbalances of the past had to be addressed through a variety of policy and legislative measures. For the majority of people to enjoy the benefits of their freedom, this had to come with, at least, economic opportunities and tangible benefits. And thus AA and BEE were born and legislated.
There is some evidence that over the past few years South Africa has begun to reverse some of these imbalances to a point where we are able to boast about key managers in big state and private corporations, increasing numbers on the boards of directors of listed companies, and a few black-owned and managed companies in certain sectors of commerce and industry.
Not always immediately apparent is that, despite some real albeit limited successes, AA and BEE may have unwelcome consequences. Among these is the creation of a small black elite benefiting because of their political connections, to the exclusion of those without. Another unwelcome and more insidious consequence is the over-reliance on the psychology and belief that real wealth, success and prosperity can only be achieved through these two mechanisms. The psyche of self-reliance and belief in our own resourcefulness and enterprise is in danger of being eroded. One can simply ask the question as to how many Richard Maponyas have emerged in the last 15 years. How many will we have in the next 20?
Any debate of these issues tends to be emotive and there is the tendency to avoid what is too uncomfortable. The reality is that all is not well with AA and BEE and we should not shy away from constantly examining the positives and negatives.
Dare I say it, but it is time to review AA and BEE, particularly when they begin in our psyche to be equated to the ticket to the next big car, mansion and ability to host an endless string of parties with a copious free-flow of alcohol and the puffing of the most expensive cigars! What happens to the systems of values which emphasise working hard against all odds to get a decent education, putting bread on the table and breaking bread with someone who would otherwise go to bed on a rather empty stomach?
It sure is time to review how we implement these instruments of social and economic engineering. Even more importantly to review their net effect on our national psyche and system of values lest we get the impression that we have arrived when on our journey we continue to leave the majority who are less fortunate behind.
l Mntambo is a businessman and former director-general of the Gauteng provincial government.