Can we do BEE differently? In a way that really meets its intended objectives?
MONEYWEB / 22 NOVEMBER 2019 - 00.04 / PATRICK CAIRNS
“There is an almost violent anger in South Africa,” Athol Williams tells me as he considers his empty mug. We have been chatting for nearly an hour in a quaint coffee shop that now seems too cramped to accommodate either his bearded frame, or his personality.
My intention was to discuss more meaningful ways to measure the country’s economic progress with the senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, poet and social philosopher. Our conversation has however blossomed well beyond that.
“Think of Bell Pottinger,” Williams says. “Bell Pottinger came into this country with ill intent, supported by the Guptas, and we celebrated when they went out of business. We destroyed them! We see bad and we want to kill.
“But what did we gain by destroying Bell Pottinger? Absolutely nothing.”
Williams is a South African searching for a different kind of answer to many of the problems this country faces.
“What I want is Bell Pottinger to still be in business, so that we can hold them accountable to come and fix the damage that they caused,” he tells me. “Then we gain something. But that takes a different kind of approach. This is a more restorative justice, as opposed to retribution.”
This is an approach, Williams argues, that would change the narrative around many things in South Africa.
“For example, if we had that mindset we would think very differently about the people who stole the land, whoever they are,” says Williams. “I don’t destroy them or chase them away.
“If you really stole the land, or deprived me of something, how am I going to hold you accountable? I think that’s a hopeful approach to things, as opposed to saying: ‘let’s destroy’.”
The real benefit of this, Williams believes, is that it would combat the alienation that many South Africans are feeling.
“What we are striving towards has become fragmented,” Williams says. “White South Africans more and more feel that they don’t belong here, because the rhetoric is that they don’t belong. And, at the same time, black South Africans are saying that we have been disinherited, and dispossessed of anything that makes us feel we belong here. So if no one feels that they belong, then we will want to destroy.”
It is therefore critical for the country to address this. One way to do that, Williams believes, is through the idea of a ‘justice debt’.
“My experience of speaking to most white South Africans is that they acknowledge that apartheid was a f— up, and acknowledge that they have some debt to society,” says Williams. “They weren’t perpetrators, but many would have been collaborators, or beneficiaries, or bystanders to what happened. My sense is that your average white South African knows they have some debt to pay, but how do they pay it?
“And when will it be enough that they can feel a legitimate South African?”
In the way these questions are currently discussed, many white South Africans feel they will always be viewed with suspicion. They will never be fully, legitimately South African because the country’s past will always be on their shoulders.
For Williams, South Africa needs to find a way to resolve this. Not only for the sake of fully incorporating white South Africans into a cohesive national vision, but to allow black South Africans to feel that justice has been served.
“Somehow you look at my life, and you say: ‘Athol you owe South Africa R100 000’. So you find a way to quantify it,” Williams explains. “Then over the next 10 years, I have to plan to pay that back. I volunteer so much, or I give so much to charity, and after 10 years Athol has paid his debt – he gets a stamp in his passport or ID book to say that he has paid his debt to society.”
This then becomes a demonstrable act of restorative justice, which allows everyone to feel that they have gained something.
“I think it’s a massive injustice to make white South Africans feel that they are always in debt because they are white,” Williams says.
“So I think we need to construct that mechanism, and it’s the same way I would deal with companies who were party to apartheid.”
Specifically, this would address the question of black economic empowerment (BEE) requirements.
“BEE can’t go on forever,” Williams says.
“Most companies are thinking we need a sunset clause to BEE, but I think we should look at this notional concept of saying if you are Anglo American you have a different justice debt to Athol’s Laundromat down the street.”
Under this approach, every company would be required to pay a debt that is proportionate to how much it benefitted under apartheid.
“As much as they have financial debt on their balance sheet, companies would carry that justice debt on their balance sheet,” says Williams.
Importantly, they would be able to pay it back. And once they have done so, then they would be able to operate legitimately in the country, free from the regulatory burden of BEE.
“If the intent is to get to the point where everyone feels that they belong, we have to dispel some of these things that make people feel that they don’t belong,” says Williams.
“This rhetoric of whites are bad, blacks are good just creates a wedge in our society.”
While Williams believes this would lead to a more cohesive approach in society, it would also have material economic benefit. That’s because it would reduce the demands on small and medium-sized businesses.
“If your company only started five years ago, it should have absolutely no obligation around reparations,” says Williams
“In fact, we should be encouraging those companies to grow as fast as possible, because they create jobs. Now we are burdening them with all of these BEE requirements, which hold them back.
“For me, it’s the truest form of being true to what BEE’s intent was, which was reparation.”
Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER