For many, the mercurial politics of corporate South Africa are punctuated by awkwardly silent, contrived spaces of uncomfortable reflection – spaces known as office elevators. Every so often the silence is broken by wide-eyed faces brimming with the heat of new degrees. Ha! It must be February and the new crop for the graduate programme has just arrived. It is a diverse bunch, each chosen for both their potential for future success and performance in their courses of tertiary study. Fast-forward four years and one notices that there is a performance gulf between members of the same cohort. One cannot help but notice how the black graduates are less competent in their ability to execute on the vision of the corporate. Yes, the black graduates in my observation are less competent.
Incompetence. We are very afraid of that word. My use of the word competence is not referring to some innate, essentialist ability to do a particular task. That particular usage is largely confined to the comical and discredited arguments of Eugenicists. I am neither interested in those arguments nor any clown entertaining them. My use of competence refers to having acquired a set of skills, knowledge and exposure such that when you perform a task you are able to frame it, understand it, socialise it and produce results.
In knowledge-intensive business environments (unlike assembly-line type factories), there is a lot of know-how that a person must learn from one’s colleagues in order to be competent. In as much as one may have a university degree and also read industry publications, there is a lot that depends on having actual hands-on experience and having someone guiding you through potential potholes. Yes there are those few special individuals who are able to do this without help or even do it in an environment with people hostile to giving them exposure. However, for the majority, if not almost all, this is not possible. Thus in these knowledge-intensive corporates the question becomes: why do the black grads lag behind? Are they not being given support and are being expected to figure it all out by themselves? Is it a case of black grads having to prove that they are clever before they are given guidance?
The false argument into which many people on transformation committees get trapped is to argue against the incompetence of black graduates. That is, argue that black grads are as competent. This is a losing argument because one can pick any set of metrics used to measure success within the company and one would, a lot of the time, find black grads to be wanting. The more enlightened argument is to circumvent the trap and argue that since these grads all come in with the same amount of knowledge, how is it that some are able to acquire more know-how than others? More so, why does this acquisition have such a racial profile? This line of argument is more fruitful because it leads to a discussion of how measures can be put in place to help blacks also advance. This is in contrast to the argument disputing incompetence which will likely lead to a lot of heat and latent animosity. There are those denied opportunity even though they are highly competent but that’s another article.
It is truly embarrassing that after 14 years of graduate programmes that there can be large corporates that lack even a single black face in revenue generating middle management – let’s not even talk about revenue generating executive management. For many people there’s this belief that in 1994 some magical switch was flipped and equal opportunity abounded. The vestiges of the apartheid hegemony exist till today. That hegemony continues to perpetuate itself by monopolising access, exposure and power. For some of the individuals who perpetuate the hegemony, the question of transformation is not one of ethics but rather a political one. Hence transformation becomes deformed by the pressures of the football of power politics and the need to be in charge. That is to say, if remaining in power means denying others opportunity then regardless of our country’s history one will completely shut others out.
Hermann Giliomee in The Last Afrikaner Leaders, argues that the defining question of Afrikaner intellectuals in the 1930s was the “poor Afrikaner” problem. He says that when Apartheid was instituted in 1948, the British afforded the Afrikaner what is termed as “benign neglect”. This was a de facto policy of not frustrating the Afrikaners’ ability to deal with the problem of transformation. For me the question I ask myself is, to what degree is this “benign neglect” being afforded those seeking opportunity in uplifting themselves today. Today this “benign neglect” at worst would be, not willfully blocking access and at best facilitating the progress of blacks.
The politics of exclusion being practised today have a very narrow and myopic outlook. A lot of the people in the ranks of those perpetuating apartheid hegemonies are in the middle class. The proportion of black people in the middle class in South Africa pales in comparison to that proportion of white people. There is no doubt that the middle class as an electoral constituency needs black people. So why would one not want to co-opt as many black people into the middle class as possible, so as to create a long term alignment of concerns and aspirations? Jonathan Jansen writes: “The major beneficiary of a first-generation university student who completes a degree is the family unit”
In other words, for each black student that is allowed to succeed, there is a potential four to 10 people who could potentially be elevated to having middle class concerns and aspirations. As a people we should strive to broaden the scope of affairs that influence our private politics. We should locate our private politics within the context of a country grappling with transformation.