91% of CEOs are White. Shocking!
August 20, 2011 § 3 Comments
Black people constitute 87% of the economically active population, yet just 9% of CEOs are people of colour. Sixteen years ago the country was liberated through a protracted negotiations process that began way before political prisoners were released in 1989. The people of South Africa gained political freedom, both black and white. Unfortunately economic liberty was not so readily available for millions, but for the political elite it was. They were in perfect positions to take advantage of the situation. No one should blame them for it.
Nelson Mandela once said, “We do not want freedom without bread, nor do we want bread without freedom.” Unfortunately millions have freedom without bread. A select few have freedom and bread in abundance. Having said that we cannot overlook the fact that with liberation we also gained the right to make our own bread, sell it and run the bakery. However the man running the bakery and making the bread is still white. I can already imagine someone calling me anti-white, implying that I am saying white people have no business running businesses. That is not true, as the Freedom Charter says, “The people shall share in the wealth of the land.” It doesn’t say the blacks.
There is no denying that the economy is in white hands. Given the choice to give up political power instead of economic power, most would give up the former. The politics of today are controlled by money. He who has the money can buy politics.
One cannot fault the white CEO for not wanting to relinquish his position to a person of colour. He too worked for many years to ascend to that position. While this CEO was working hard to make his way to the top there were other equally ambitious white people who were working just as hard to be the chief in charge. What does that mean? It means that there was a larger pool of well-qualified white people to run large corporations. In the meantime black people were studying Bachelor of Arts, and were teachers and nurses and doctors. Black people were not exposed nor allowed to study certain professions. Yes, I’m blaming apartheid, sue me.
Suddenly liberation was won. Men and women who had worked hard all their lives to run companies started hearing murmurs about affirmative action, they were fearful of losing their jobs. Some hired black talent but never really transferred skills because of the natural human instinct of fear — if I teach him everything I know he is going to push me out and I will no longer be needed because I am a white male. This means people of colour don’t ascend as quickly. They feel sidelined, disgruntled and, demotivated, quit and become Tenderpreneurs. Tired of fighting what they think is a losing battle, they leave what they see as racist corporate South Africa behind. These are just some of the reasons we are in this position.
If we take a look at the Freedom Charter which is the basis of our much-praised Constitution. We read the following, “We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: that our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities.” The truth is we do all enjoy equal opportunities since liberation but some have to fight ten times harder than others to even have a sniff at the opportunities.
In 1998, then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki opened a debate in the National Assembly on “Reconciliation and Nation Building”. He delivered a speech that made many people angry. He said, “A major component part of the issue of reconciliation and nation building is defined by and derives from the material conditions in our society which have divided our country into two nations, the one black and the other white. We therefore make bold to say that South Africa is a country of two nations.
“One of these nations is white, relatively prosperous, regardless of gender or geographic dispersal. It has ready access to a developed economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure…
“The second and larger nation of South Africa is black and poor, with the worst affected being women in the rural areas, the black rural population in general and the disabled. This nation lives under conditions of a grossly underdeveloped economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure. It has virtually no possibility to exercise what in reality amounts to a theoretical right to equal opportunity, with that right being equal within this black nation only to the extent that it is equally incapable of realisation.”
It has been twelve years since Thabo Mbeki said those words. Twelve years later 91% of CEOs of some of the largest and most influential companies in the country are white. Many saw the speech as being divisive, as opposed to constructive. It made many uncomfortable.
I read an article that slapped me in the face yesterday. A survey conducted by Business Unity South Africa found that among the upper management echelons of all 295 companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), 91% had white CEOs. Nobody can truly say this is right — after all it has been more than fifteen years since we were liberated. Some say that precisely the reason that 91% of these companies have white CEOs is because we have ONLY had sixteen years of liberation. There aren’t qualified people of colour because of the time frame.
Therefore there hasn’t been enough time to develop nor groom black talent in that space of time. A reasonable comment. Saying that the ANC had no experience running a country and needed a lot of time before it would be allowed to run a country made common sense. We didn’t listen to what would have been “common sense”. Sometimes common sense slows things down. Had we taken what Dr Martin Luther King Junior called, “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism” the black person would still have no vote today.
Nobody is saying that incompetent people of colour should be made CEOs because that would prove those who want to say blacks cannot run large corporations right, and would defeat the purpose. We have competent black CEOs to speak of right now; the Sizwe Nxasanas and the Phuthuma Nhlekos of this world running multi billion rand corporations. More needs to be added to their number.
This issue of white corporate South Africa needs to be discussed; it can’t continue to be swept under the rug. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Our strongest weapon is dialogue.” Let’s talk, and once we’re done talking let’s act.
Originally appeared on Thursday, March 4th, 2010 at 12:36 and Mail & Guardian on the 24th of December