Why are some people opposed to black empowerment policies?

AfricanGirl

When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, “Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?” 17And hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

– Mark 2 : 16 – 17

I’ve often been perplexed by the vehement opposition with which some people have against black empowerment policies. It’s quite strange since those policies are infact an attempt to remedy the clearly unacceptable situation where in countries like South Africa, the majority of the wealth is owned and controlled by a tiny white minority, while millions of black South Africans go by with too little.

And it’s not only in South Africa where this problem exists. Instead in most parts of Africa, we have a situation whether a tiny elite of individuals, businesses and corporations owns disproportionately huge amounts of resources, whereas the native population has very little in comparison. In the United States policies that embody what some call ‘positive discrimination’, for example Affirmative action,  have for decades attracted widespread and unfair criticsm. Having spent some time studying the views and opinions of people who are against Black Economic Empowerment (BEE),  I think I now understand their position more clearly, including the deep flaws in their arguments.

Racist

Over the last couple of years I’ve read opinions for and against BEE.  I’ve been both entertained and shocked, but in boths instances marvelled at the passion or lack of nuance in some of the attitudes in this space. Among the most common accusations against BEE is the cheap and totally lazy accusation that BEE policies are racist.

But hang on a moment….when you have millions of people in South Africa, and hundreds of millions of people across the African continent, who as a result of racist ideas such as Colonialism, Slavery (over hundreds of years), discriminatory and in some cases highly questionable if not altogether racist policies of western institutions, live with poverty and struggle to get by each day, failing to improve their lives, how can you be taken seriously when you attack such countries / leaders for trying to reverse the consequences of European racist Ideology?? How dishonest is that? If you agree that colonialism and slavery were wrong, then surely you should by implication also agree that those who have been affected by the long-term effects of these toxic ideologies deserve a helping hand to enable them to be financially independent. It’s only equitable.

But often these critics don’t suggest anything better that will have real tangible effects (provide affordable housing to people on incomes that are so low they cannot afford house prices unaided at the current levels;  create well-paying jobs to people who were previously unemployed, and unable to get a job; enable loans to be extended to people with bad credit histories – who would otherwise be unable to get loans elsewhere, etc), but are very good at ignoring the history that has created the deprivation in the first place.

Further, if after decades the disparities we see in society today continue to linger (and in some cases they have increased), are you saying the situation that is failing to rectify itself, and indeed can’t rectify itself without intervention- should be left just as it is?

If thats what they propose, then in whose interest and benefit will such be? If you ask me certainly not in the interest of black Africans who are the people who need help here.

And so you really have to wonder why these critics are making those accusations  when they have got no workable alternative idea to offer?

Wasteful

Another flimsy but entirely predictable accusation that is often levelled against the state in regards to BEE policies is that they are inefficient; that they suck up too many resources, for very little return. In essence these critics are applying well known business principles of investment and return to a social cause that is not readily measured in numbers. If a family is happy that they now have a new home, which is safe, and does not leak like their old house in the ghetto, how can you translate that into a mathematical or financial equation? It’s not possible, yet that happiness and safety is a legitimate measure of success of the initiative.

The rationale behind the accusation of wastefulness is rather questionable if not outright elitist. Think about it; when colonial governments across Africa acted in the interests of European countries alone, to extract huge amounts of resources from colonised lands for the benefit of Kingdoms and the Aristocracy in Europe, to build their cities and sustain their economies, forsaking even basic investment in healthcare, job creation, infrastructure, education, social services, the general well-being and economic advancement of the indigenous populations across the African or Carribean colonies, is it really that big a transgression for African countries to begin spending money on their people (who historically were maligned for hundreds of years)? What is so bad with aiding people who are unable to afford decent housing get good homes? Or helping low income workers get well-paying jobs- which their forefathers were prohibited from holding?

It will cause them to be lazy is the often the insensitive response you get from critics of BEE policies. But that’s not entirely accurate because by improving their lives you are also helping them be  in a position where they can take advantage of certain opportunities which they couldn’t previously be able to take advantage of. For example, if I now have a safe house to live in, with a refrigerator, I may want to start a business selling cold soft drinks in my neighbourhood – something which I wouldn’t be able to readily do in my old shack in the slums. I have electricity, so my children will be able to stay up late and use the lights at night to read books, and hopefully get better grades in school (books which they borrow from the newly built Library down the road – when previously they had to walk over 3 miles to get to a Library). They will be better protected from the elements – reducing the likelihood of disease, especially since that now I have better sanitation… Overall, there will be a great and immeasurable improvement to our lives.

What all this is, is spending money that the predecessors of these African governments (colonial and apartheid governments) should have spent on the indigenous populations decades ago, but which they didn’t spend for all sorts of reasons….

I mean, is it really such a bad thing for African countries to decide to achieve genuine economic equality? … when you have so much poverty and want across the continent…

OpenSewer-Nairobi
A boy sits near an open sewer in Kibera slum, Nairobi // Source: Wikipedia

The way I see it, if there had been fairness, and if throughout history black populations were treated humanely, and in the same way as white populations, with no systematic bias or ideological repression of one kind or another, there would be no need for BEE policies today, because the income disparities would not exist. The only reason we have BEE policies is because there is an unacceptable problem that was created throughout history, that in many countries still remains, and that urgently needs to be rectified.

Like the first accusation, those who attack BEE policies with the wasteful accusation fail to understand the real benefits these policies have on poor people. They too won’t suggest anything better that would achieve real results.

Here, please allow me to digress: I seem to see this pattern operating in the world today; that any leader of a non western country, who stands up to the global financial oligarchy, and who bravely begins ambitious Social  Policies to improve the lives of the poor people in  his or her country, almost always becomes the victim of vilification and attacks from the western media and the Bretton Woods institutions, who ignore all the good he or she has done. Two years asgo, soon after Hugo Chavez died, I overheard one member of my family saying to someone over the phone that Chavez was a bad man. After the phone conversation ended, I asked her how  she arrived at such a conclusion, and she recited back pretty much all the drivel that was written about him on the pages of newspapers such as the Times and the Guardian. Biased and one-sided tosh. When I explained to her  in detail what Hugo Chavez had actually achieved for the millions of people in his country, from the perspective of some of the people who had benefitted – the stories of which I had read, she could only muster a very feeble I didn’t know that…

Corrupt

This one is the loudest accusation, but like the other two, it also is not entirely accurate. Critics of BEE policies claim that the adminstration of BEE funds often becomes mirred in corruption. That institutions mandated to administer BEE funds become channels through which party officials and other corrupt types siphon state funds, and that there is widespread corruption involved in the process.

The question which those who throw this accusation fail to answer is why is the corruption happening in the first place?  Is it that there are too many Africans who are so deprived that when suddenly exposed to money, many embezzle funds? How much of that corruption is down to foreign companies paying bribes to gain business?

I’m not giving excuses for the corruption, but I think it’s important to ask the question what is at the root of such corruption?

In the UK for example, throughout the years there have been many corruption scandals (most recently the MP’s expenses scandal) which have thus far disappeared into the archives of history – it’s as if they never happened in the first place. It’s the same scenario in the US, Canada, Australia, Israel, Brazil, India…in all these countries with established democracies, politicians and people with close ties to politicians have been prosecuted, fined or even jailed for corrupt conduct of one type or another. Yet we don’t hear of it often partly because in some of these countries corruption (which still happens) was more widespread many  years ago than it is now, and the scandals occur further and further apart. Therefore,  on this basis alone, and considering that many African countries have been independent for little over 60 years, it is not crazy to surmise that the corruption  we see in Africa today, not only that said to be happening within BEE initiatives but across the board, must be understood as glitches in the developmental phases happening on the continent, just like the developed countries of today also had their dark days (when corruption was rife), during the early days of their representative democracy.

Opponents of BEE would thus be better advised to use their energies and precious time not in the vain and pointless exercise of shooting down policies that will help millions of black people, but to find ways of curbing the corruption most decent people are against- so that those policies are strengthened, and achieve better outcomes….

After all, we all want equality, don’t we ….? 🙂

In the next article on this topic, I will attempt to address the accusation of incompetence (whereby some critics claim that black Africans are unable to run or be in control of successful and profitable businesses rendering certain aspects of BEE policies harmful to business). I’ll also conclude by stating what I think to be the real reasons behind these accusations.

Economic Empowerment

mg2I hate to be the bearer of bad news but I’m not sorry to be the one that spoils the party. Especially this particular party…because while Malawi is currently heated with election campaign fervour, some of the events happening on the ground have caused one part of me to doubt whether much substance will in fact come out of the leadership that will be appointed after the 20 May elections.

Are we really going to see the transformation being excitedly predicted by each party’s honchos? What kind of transformation will we see? Are the parties really going to deliver what they have promised in their manifestos? Weren’t similar promises made during the election campaigns of 1994, 1999, 2004 and 2009? To what extent were those promises honoured? So then, what major transformation came out of the administrations who won those elections?

I think no matter who you choose to vote for, it would be wise to be cautious, and carefully examine each candidate on their merits, and what their track records in terms of actual achievements the last 5 – 10 years (not just the last year or two) have been…

Many a times I have waxed lyrical as if on a soapbox about economic empowerment of Africans, and many a time, I have not exactly got through to the right people. Which is okay. The right people are rarely in the right jobs, they are rarely listening.

But this is an issue that has to be addressed sooner or later, otherwise African countries will continue to struggle with poverty and other ills. Donors and foreign corporations will not tackle the issue of empowerment because it’s not always in their best interests, and they are not good at doing so [See this: Between the Elusive and the Illusionary: Donors’ Empowerment Agendas in the Middle East in Perspective – Mariz Tadros].

In Malawi most NGO’s do not have the power, nor are they sufficiently well resourced to influence the establishment of a nationwide empowerment initiatives that have a real chance to make a big enough impact. It’s all down to the government and MP’s, and for what it’s worth one part of me can’t see enough progress being done after the elections. Maybe I’m being unfair and prematurely judgemental, but I’m yet to be convinced whether any of the major parties truly can deliver what they promise. And this is not only because the practicality of what they promise in their manifestos is questionable but also because the vagueness of some of the promises render them useless.

But for those voters who are listening, and concerned, the important questions every Malawian should ask the candidates of the 20 May elections, before voting, are these:

What will they do differently to ensure that Malawians are economically empowered, and not taken advantage of? And why should we trust you?

This is important especially because it is clear to most Malawians that the tenures of the MCP, UDF, DPP and PP governments in the past have established very little for Malawians to show for. While countries like Kenya, Zambia, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Mozambique (where there was a debilitating 15 year long civil war) have powered forward with impressive results, Malawi, despite unsustainable blips of progress, is still languishing in the doldrums.

So, what will the candidates who vie for election to Parliament do which hasn’t been done already in the country’s 50-year-old history?

The reason that this question must be answered is that economic empowerment will not occur if the policies the new government institute turn out to be mediocre (like distributing cattle, chickens, houses or shoes) or the same as what has not worked in the past, and if corruption continues to be tolerated. In a country with 15 million people, the presidency would be best advised to think on a much larger scale, than wasting resources on mediocre projects.

Taking a simplistic general view, for people to be innovative and industrious they require one or more of the following:- an income, education, inspiration, tools/ building blocks (trucks, implements & equipment), and power (literally electricity). So, one would think that when a government articulates how they will provide these as part of a wider national transformation strategy, there will be a much higher chance of transforming Malawi than say distributing a million cows to villagers.

But that alone is not enough. Empowerment essentially means giving one power or authority to do something. So I’d like to see factories built, where young people can work, earn an income and develop transferable skills. And those factories, must be majority owned by Malawians, so that the profits made from Malawi stay within Malawi. Further, instead of giving a mining contract or power generation contract to a foreign corporation – which has its own interests, I’d like a government that promises, and implements a national  mining company, or power generation company, which is government owned, and whose profits are reinvested into Malawi.

That is precisely the kind of visionary leadership Malawians should seek and vote for.

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