To Empower or Not to Empower

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By Wonder Guchu WINDHOEK Black empowerment programmes mostly in Africa, despite the good intentions behind their implementation, have attracted more controversy than their and have become synonymous with corruption and unfairness. Whether it is called broad-based black economic empowerment, indigenization, natural economic empowerment and development strategy, state economic and development strategies or the heavens economic empowerment, the fate in most cases has been the same – failure. So, when Namibia’s own version of black economic empowerment programme hit the headlines for the wrong reasons, the fact is that this has been the case everywhere, where the same programmes intended to benefit the marginalized end up marginalizing them further. These ills that come with the economic empowerment programmes have raised questions on whether it is necessary to empower people or not. If they should do so, how should they do it in order to involve the people for whom the programmes are meant? In the face of wrong things, like having a few privileged individuals grabbing everything, what should be done and, anyway, how moral or politically right is an economic empowerment programme that targets a certain section of the society? The idea of propping up the economically marginalized societies is a very noble one and most African countries have used it either to eradicate or alleviate poverty or to correct wrongs done during the colonial times. Because the levels of deprivation differ from country to country, there has not been a blueprint that could be adopted as a standard approach in implementing empowerment programmes. As a result, each country has encountered different problems but most – if not all – involved corruption, and therefore a contradiction of what the empowerment programme should be. To many people and governments, economic empowerment is having blacks sitting on company boards or taking up active roles as directors or managers with big companies. It also means availing resources to enable people to estabish companies and improve their lifestyles. In essence, the process means reversing the whole economic setup that sought to empower the vulnerable sections of the society who happen to be the blacks. It includes creating jobs, rural development, access to finances for the purposes of improving households and businesses, skills and management development, urban renewal, education as well as alleviating poverty. Ironically, this has not been the case in Africa where the belief is that empowerment means pushing blacks into management positions without preparing them for the challenges and the temptations that come with the jobs. Or availing resources to people who cannot manage such resources well. Overwhelmed by their new-found wealth or positions, most people abuse the resources and these positions, resulting in massive corruption that always graces media headlines. In most cases, the few who would have benefited think that since such empowerment is initiated by the government, it is some kind of handout they are entitled to. A study of how most economic empowerment programmes are implemented shows that no efforts are made to educate the so-called marginalized on their empowerment, thereby giving those who are already in business an advantage. In South Africa, for example, cases of employers who used the names of their employees without their knowledge were rampant, and in Namibia one such case was reported on. These acts go far in showing that the majority of the people who live in poverty and badly need to be empowered are not be educated about the programmes and only get to know about it when cases of corruption surface. Although there is always talk about taking legal action against people who seek to wrongly empower themselves further, history has shown that such cases take years, and then die naturally. As far as most empowerment programmes are concerned, the same people but under new names, or as part of different groups, usually return to successfully harvest more funds from the same programmes. Besides failing to educate the intended beneficiaries, most governments embark on empowerment programmes with only a blanket idea of what they seek to do, how to do it and for whose benefit – something that makes the whole exercise experimental. In the face of these failures, should governments seek to empower or not? – Nampa/Reuters Wonder Guchu is a visiting journalist from Zimbabwe. He is currently on attachment with the Namibia Press Agency (NAMPA).