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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 3, No. 19, 6 October 2004

In this Issue:


Red Alert

Taking the BEE debate forward

By Blade Nzimande, General Secretary

We warmly welcome the recent speech by the Secretary General of the ANC to the BMF. Cde Kgalema Montlanthe's speech, the recent speech by the General Secretary of COSATU to the SACTWU Congress, and our own 4 August 2004 edition of Umsebenzi Online on this matter, mark a significant Alliance convergence around Black Economic Empowerment. They also underline the urgent need to deepen the debate both within the Alliance and in the broader public arena. However, we are strongly of the view that BEE should not be debated just for the sake of it, but with a view to, as Cde Kgalema correctly suggests, acting on it to ensure that it is truly broad based and transformational. In order to do this we think it is important to reflect on the very origins of the concept ' Black Economic Empowerment'.

The concept 'BEE' is new in the vocabulary of our movement and alliance. It is totally absent in all the pre-1994 major policy documents of our Alliance. Of course, this does not mean that there is anything wrong with the emergence of new concepts and programmes in line with the tasks of deepening and consolidation of the national democratic revolution. From the Freedom Charter in 1955 through to the 1994 democratic breakthrough we spoke about building people's power in society as a whole, including the economy, as the central platform for transforming economy and society to serve the interests of the overwhelming majority of our people. This language and conception has fallen off the movement's radar screen, particularly in relation to economic transformation, and instead has been replaced by the new concept of 'black economic empowerment'. An implied question in Cde Kgalema's speech is whether the two are the same. Whilst theoretically they can mean the same, in practice there is a clear divergence, if not contradiction.

Concepts do not inherently and always imply particular courses of action, or a particular evolution of the phenomenon they describe. However, at the same time, concepts are not neutral and are always the subject of (class) contestations and meanings. Whilst this concept of BEE is relatively new in the vocabulary of our movement, it is not new in South Africa. Its origins can be traced back to the aftermath of the 1976 student uprisings and the murder of Steve Biko by the apartheid regime in 1977.

The above two developments led to increased international pressure for the isolation of the apartheid regime and for economic sanctions to be tightened. One of the major responses to this, led by American corporations who were resisting the disinvestment lobby and pressure, was to train and promote black managers in the corporations under the rubric of what became known in the late 1970's as 'Black Advancement'. The main agenda of black advancement was to show that there were benefits to black people through foreign investment and some 'Black Advancement' experiments by big South African corporations. Another key part of this agenda was the creation of a small black corporate petty bourgeoisie to try and convince black South Africans that capitalism is in their interests. This was aimed at countering what they saw as the socialism of the liberation movement. Isn't it indeed ironic that today some of these foreign investors are pursuing the creation of some form of a black elite corporate class under white minority rule, while at the same time, they are complaining about the costs of BEE under a democratic government! President Thabo Mbeki was absolutely correct in his recent observations on these matters.

There are today very strong continuities in the practice of 'Black Advancement' and BEE. Whilst under 'Black Advancement' upward mobility was only limited to senior managerial positions, in many window-dressing type instances, BEE has broken into the capitalist ownership stakes. Yet the underlying agenda of BEE as practiced by private capital is the same as that of 'Black Advancement' ' co-opting a few to project a deracialised capitalism. Regrettably, this discourse and agenda of a 'Black Advancement' BEE also finds some resonance in sections of our own movement and government.

Further debate on BEE must ensure that we undertake some comprehensive review of all policies and practices, both in the public and private sectors. As we have said before, BEE thus far has been neither broad-based nor transformative. As Cde Kgalema correct observes, transfer and transformation are not the same. We are also deeply concerned that there are no explicit conceptual and programmatic linkages between BEE and transformation of gender relations in South Africa's workplaces. This should central take into account the partriarchal nature of South Africa's workplace regimes and the fact that the most oppressed, exploited and marginalised stratum of our society is black working class, rural and poor women. BEE has to speak this reality to be in line with the overall objectives of the national democratic revolution.

Given this history and practice of BEE thus far, is it also not necessary that we pose the much more fundamental question that our late stalwart Cde Govan Mbeki once asked in relation to the concept of Affirmative Action? Whilst he was supportive of measures to affirm the majority of our people, he asked whether this concept and its implied processes and objectives was perhaps more American than South African? The concept originated in a context where a (black) minority had to be accommodated into the institutions of a (white) majority in the US. In South Africa, the opposite is the case, hence our revolutionary goal, as captured in the Freedom Charter, of building people's power in the economy and the rest of South African society.

The above by no means suggests that these programmes should be dropped, as the DA and others would like. However, as we review and debate, we should strive to give them the appropriate class, national and gender content in line with the objectives of the national democratic revolution.

Another critical area that requires serious debate and review is that of the drafting and adoption of various charters by business. Our own experiences with the Financial Sector Charter have given us some vital insights in this regard. The approach to formulating sectoral transformation charters is ad hoc and dependent on the forces driving the charter agenda. There is also confusion as to whether these are transformation or BEE charters.

Hardly any of these charters have involved mass and labour organisations in their drafting. With perhaps the exception of the Financial Sector Charter, in itself after a protracted battle, none have representative and inclusive oversight and supervisory mechanisms.

This is an indication that the present dispensation allows for any number of diverse approaches, each with a variety of possible outcomes and deliverables. Several industries are starting or contemplating charter processes, highlighting the need for clarity and uniformity in the charter process. This presents an opportunity for interests that wish to see charters play a transformational and developmental role to influence the charter process. It is our considered view that these charters should be firmly located within, and guided by, our policy frameworks of creating work and fighting poverty, as well as the Growth and Development Summit resolutions.

In this regard we need to address some fundamental questions about both BEE and the charters. For instance, is the goal of charters part of the national development agenda with the aim of creating jobs and addressing poverty or are the goals to be defined narrowly, dealing only with ownership, equity and skills development issues?

For this debate to be taken forward in a meaningful way, working class forces and the Alliance as a whole must have a clear, strategic and co-ordinated approach to the transformation of the economy. As the SACP we will energetically and constructively engage in this debate. We will engage in this debate informed by the reality that the fundamental problem in our society is the capitalist system itself, with the white capitalist class at the helm.

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