Are You Enlightened on BEE?

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Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro Having accessed a copy of The Namibian newspaper one Friday recently, I instantly caught sight of a smiling Brother Lazarus Jacobs on the front page, ready to enlighten many of us on Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). So much has been said about BEE by all and sundry without much clarity what BEE is, or supposed to be. Hence my spontaneous excitement in anticipation of reading the article. Such an exposÃÆ’Æ‘Æ‘ÃÆ”šÃ‚© on BEE from the horse’s mouth was long overdue. I cannot say I was disappointed, but I pitied the author for taking a detour which eventually led him astray and into some cul de sac. I would have preferred him to take the route past thousands of impoverished Namibians out there who should be the real target of empowerment. Rather than enlightening us on what BEE is and how it is meant to restructure and transform the economic system in this country, and thereby alleviate the suffering of thousands in our communities, the Brother chose to be playing to the gallery of the previously advantaged detractors of BEE – in this case, those still wielding economic power. He has as yet to savour the full consequences of that route. It baffles me that in this day and hour of our political correctness, the Brother feels obliged to pander to the whims of have-been masters. It was thus not surprising that his article sounded superficial as it avoided what should be the real debate surrounding BEE, and instead directed it into such trivialities as to whether blacks should run after riches or not. I would not want to believe that Brother Jacobs genuinely believes that BEE is a matter of enrichment, as he seems to allude in his article. In fact, since BEE already seems to be airborne without the necessary philosophical and strategic frameworks in place, it would have been interesting to see the BEE players share their philosophies and ideologies at best, and at least perhaps their practical experiences. If the idea behind BEE is the enrichment of the Africans, or Blacks, and I am sure others can add to the definition of the common denominator of the beneficiaries of BEE, then I wonder why bother about the project at all. Least of all, why should the many poor people in this country lift their eyes up to BEE? Or are we saying BEE is fundamentally not meant to empower the poor? If this is the kind of BEE we envisage, then I can guarantee you it would take us another 100 years – the same amount of years it took us to disentangle colonialism – before the poor can unshackle their poverty chains. Not that I have anything against black people getting rich. Not at all. However, what makes me uneasy is that Brother Jacobs seems to readily embrace “richness” without giving meaning and context to it in the new order now prevailing in an independent Namibia. Does Jacobs now conveniently subscribe to the “deep-seated understanding that personal wealth constituted the only true measure of individual and social success?” to borrow from the recent speech by South African President Thabo Mbeki during the Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture. Is this the same understanding underwriting Brother Jacobs’ version of BEE, or BEE in general for that matter? Notwithstanding that this clamouring for “richness” may have been translocated from the colonial and apartheid era without any adjustment considering the new realities of Namibia, characterized by swelling ranks of poor living parallel to a few presumably rich blacks, whatever that means. Likening BEE in South Africa to the American experience with Affirmative Action, an American academic, Dr Barbara Adams, in her lecture at the University of Fort Hare in 2004, admitted to AA not to have done enough in the United States of America to change attitudes and social prejudices. “It does not address the problems of the very poor,” she was quoted as saying. Writing on BEE legislation in South Africa, Quentin Wray once opined: “A new era of economic empowerment that does not only increase the wealth of a handful of black boardroom barons but also gives the average Joes a chance to grow the size of their piece of the economic pie, is now long overdue.” Most instructively, he further pointed out: “To ensure that black economic empowerment is broad-based, inclusive and will result in both higher levels of black ownership and the reduction in income inequalities, empowerment will not only be measured in terms of ownership but also management, employment equity, skills development, procurement, corporate social responsibility, investment and enterprise formation.” I am sure we can take a leaf or two from this. Granting that Namibia’s is a mixed economy and anybody can get as much filthy and stinking richness as she/he wants or can, while others I am sure Brother Jacobs would say choose the opposite route of drowning deep in their poverty, this has to be on their own ticket and through own endeavours. However, it boggles my mind how it should be the business of Government or official policy and strategy to prod individuals into richness without the individuals so prodded having any compassion for the poor or marginalized, to use the proper term. Even if this obligation is only to in turn serve as a vehicle for the empowerment as opposed to the enrichment of the broad-based masses. Brother Jacobs has a point that we cannot allow those already rich to continue being rich at our expense. Yes, I agree, but qualify this by adding not: at the expense of the marginalized. Even during the German colonial period and up to the apartheid era there were rich whites. Due to the nature of the stratification of the society at the time, I may have had little access to white neighbourhoods and thus limited insight into their idiosyncrasies. However, I cannot think of any poor whites during those eras, not to the same proportion that we are seeing many black people in consuming poverty in our growing informal settlements countrywide. Crumbs from the rich fell in good measure onto the tables of their fellows at the bottom half of the system. If BEE cannot go some way towards realizing the objective conditions in our communities, then it would not be worth the paper it is to be written on one day, when it is written, because as yet it is officially an unwritten concept. Yes, I take my hat off to Mr Jacobs and fellow BEE travellers for being one-person social welfare organizations to their extended clans. But who is not? I know of people in our communities who are less privileged than our BEE brothers and sisters but who are doing wonders for their extended families. Thus, this cannot be a yardstick of the usefulness of BEE to the Namibian society. It is high time we started defining BEE and to give true meaning to be in the context of the redistribution of wealth, not for its own take but for the sake of economically uplifting our communities. It is also incumbent upon current BEE players to come clean on the concept as it has been playing itself out in the market as the nation positions itself for revisiting it. Especially expounding on the frameworks that have been informing it. Our southern neighbour has mechanisms in place like a strategy for Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment and a Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act and Codes of Good Practice and Charters. There is no doubt these would be useful to us in mainstreaming BEE. Meantime, perhaps the least Brother Jacobs and company can do, permitting and respecting their enchantment for richness, is to show the poor the way to a true silver rights tradition?