Responding to widespread expressions of concern about the track record and future prospects of transformation policies, the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) invited a number of prominent South Africans to share their thoughts on transformation with Business Day readers.

These are being published in the leader pages of the Business Day over the course of February and March 2011. They are also being made available here.

THE time has come for an honest debate about transformation – a word that generates more heat than light in South African politics. “Transformation” is regarded by the government and the ruling party as the ultimate measure of success for each and every policy. What exactly is “transformation”? What is its purpose? How will we know when we are “transformed”?

In its present forms, the pursuit of transformation has become divisive.

Its current application is dangerous at a number of levels. For many, it is the reason previously functional institutions are wracked by corruption, poor service delivery and the failure of managers to take remedial action.

Incumbents are often ignorant and arrogant, a lethal combination when people have power.

SA needs an inspiring and inclusive vision of a society in which opportunities to succeed are open to all, especially those denied so much for so long. We need to be able to imagine a country that is built on and rewards the talents of all South Africans.

As currently understood and applied, “transformation” does not achieve this.

In one document, the African National Congress (ANC) describes itself as “a movement that organises and leads people in the task of social transformation”, without being specific about what this entails.

In another: “Transformation involves a fundamental change of society in an effort to create a nonracist, nonsexist, democratic and prosperous society.”

Equally cloudy generalisations proliferate in discussions on specific sectors.

A transformed judiciary, for example, will be “gender- and race-sensitive and responsive to the needs and aspirations of all South Africans”. We are left to imagine what a “race- sensitive” judge would do, that a “colour- blind” judge would not. And whether “gender and race sensitivity” is more important than a commitment to our constitution and excellence as a legal thinker.

Even the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act, in its only substantial reference to transformation, refers merely to the need to enable “meaningful participation of black people in the economy”. What, one wants to know, is “meaningful”?

Does this lack of precise definition really matter? We can pick up a working definition by observing transformation in practice. From this, we might conclude that transformation involves the increased participation of black people in general and African people in particular in ownership and employment. And especially in holding positions of seniority, authority and influence in publicly funded bodies.

“Transformation” is a one-word sound bite to justify any and all actions taken to bring this about – legislated and informal, transparent and opaque, voluntary and coerced.

Given the universal agreement that the legacies of apartheid’s great inequities and exclusions need to be addressed, where is the need for debate on the issue? What is the problem?

The problem is that transformation has become a word that covers a mixture of desirable changes intermingled with a multitude of confusions, contradictions and dangers.

We need to ask: whose interests does the current approach to “transformation” serve?

Fifteen years of transformation have frequently been based on the “trickle-down” assumption that if you change the demographic composition of any given institution’s leadership, public or private, the lives of those it serves (whether customers or citizens) will improve.

Sometimes this is so but the reality of stagnating or deteriorating outcomes in public health, education and public enterprises suggests that often it is not.

Poor policy and institutional failure have multiple causes.

It is therefore difficult to tell how much badly understood or poorly implemented transformation policies have contributed to skills shortages, poor service delivery, institutional collapse and corruption.

However, the priority attached to racial head counts in public and private sectors makes it legitimate to ask: is there a trade-off between transforming the lives of the few who fill the managerial positions, and the delivery of quality services to the many who desperately need these “stepping stones” to transform their own prospects?

Transformation has become a handy lever for personal and factional advancement. Cadre deployment and political patronage cut across all areas affected by transformation. Everyone knows this.

Some senior ANC officials regularly (but ineffectually) deplore this as a distortion of policy. Surely it is time to have an honest conversation on how and why these things happen; to agree on what should be done to implement an effective approach to opportunity for all, coupled with institutional integrity and competence; and stop the opportunism and corruption that undermine national development.

Prompted by these concerns, the Centre for Development and Enterprise is promoting a wide-ranging debate on “transformation” and the many questions that current usage of the term conceals.

Our intention is to open up new possibilities, encourage new ways of thinking and add new voices to a discussion of profound national importance. We hope our contributors, who come from different parts of our society, will reflect on a series of questions and, as importantly, provoke readers to think about them more deeply.

– Do we want to be a society that promotes equality of opportunity or one that insists on equality of outcomes? If the former, how do we make this happen so that more and more poor South Africans are able to access and take advantage of opportunity? If it is the latter, what are the costs for a society where race or ethnicity (or who you know) are more important than what you can contribute?

– Can we build a truly effective state and globally competitive modern economy without making the best use of all the talent in the country?

– To what extent has transformation become a cover for corruption, nepotism, incompetence and patronage?

– How can we find ways to transform the lives of the majority of South Africans as consumers of quality public services rather than concentrating on the minority of those angling for the top jobs?

The Centre for Development and Enterprise certainly does not have all the answers but at the outset of this series we want to put at least some of our cards on the table.

The only transformation worth pursuing is that which would radically reshape the structure of opportunity for all South Africans.

The great danger of the current approach is that, instead of transforming the conditions of life for the vast majority, it divides South Africans into insiders and outsiders.

Transformation as it has been practised has made the elite increasingly nonracial, but to a damaging extent it limits change to the superficial tweaking of racial demography that is so aggressively pursued by selfinterested and self-selecting insiders.

The only way ever discovered of lifting millions of people out of poverty has been a decades-long period of rapid, job-intensive economic growth.

If we are serious about addressing mass poverty, then the country needs to prioritise the nurturing of an expanding and entrepreneurial middle class over redistribution to crony capitalists.

SA needs a new, more inclusive and sharper vision of “transformation”.

We hope this debate will contribute to finding a path that leads to dramatically higher levels of employment, as well as better education, healthcare, services and security from crime. We hope that the meaning of transformation can itself be transformed: from a toll or tax to pay for the past to an accord on which to build our future.