Transformation: Racial myths stand in the way of entrepreneurship

06 Apr 2011, by Admin
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Herman Mashaba for Business Day, 6 April 2011.

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.

Herman Mashaba-Racial myths stand in the way of entrepreneurship

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Twenty years after the release from prison of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of our liberation movements, and 16 years after the birth of our hard-won democracy, our nation still faces a number of significant challenges.

Unemployment is very high, especially among the youth, mainly as a result of our education system not producing the right calibre of people needed by SA’s modern economy. High unemployment is contributing to the high crime rates among our youth. HIV-AIDS is a major problem. About 6-million people are infected with HIV and about 3,8-million children have lost at least one of their parents to AIDS.

A key tool being used by the government to reduce poverty is the payment of social grants. More than 15-million people receive social grants. This is by no means a sustainable model. Having to depend on grants as a source of income takes away our people’s dignity. The only way of reducing poverty in the long term and i n a sustainable way is through job creation.

A key way of creating sustaining employment for the country is to encourage and harness the integration of black and white business people – to work together as South Africans. SA’s unique history gives us a comparative advantage, which we need to leverage. The country has a highly developed economy in the areas of mining, manufacturing, retail, communications, agriculture and tourism.

The banking sector ranks among the top 10 in the world.

There is a significant tradition and legacy of white business expertise in the country – a reality that cannot be denied.

In the same way as the white and black keys of the piano have to be played together to make melodic music, so must black and white entrepreneurs work together to create a competitive economy that can hold its own against the best in the world and thereby create jobs and reduce poverty.

This partnership between the races has been my own experience throughout my business career. This is the model I used in 1984 when I conceived my first business, Black Like Me, the hair products company.

My white partner provided the technical skills the business required and the white face that was politically needed to deal with officialdom during the days of apartheid.

It is the same model of partnership that I have used in my subsequent investment companies – the Leswikeng and Phatsima Groups. These experiences have informed my dealings in business and in my personal life, where I deal with people on the basis of what value they add and never on the basis of the colour of their skin or their race.

Although the conditions since 1994 have changed significantly, the business community is not taking full advantage of this unique enabler in our country to create more businesses and to make a number of existing companies more productive and profitable and, in so doing, contribute to sustained cohesion between the different races of our rainbow nation.

For this partnership to work effectively, there are certain myths that need to be debunked.

– Myth one is that, as far as whites are concerned, blacks are lazy and don’t want to work hard. Blacks are seen as wanting short cuts. At the back of their minds, whites think that blacks are corrupt.

Such perceptions will lead to a hardening of attitudes – laziness, or corruption for that matter, exists across the board (the apartheid government and apartheid business, some would argue, was particularly corrupt). It is the governance structures that we put in place, the best practices, the ethics of how we do business, that determine what goes right and what goes wrong.

– Myth two is that blacks believe whites are out to hoodwink them, to pull the wool over their eyes. According to this, whites cannot be trusted and will act only in their own selfish interest at the expense of blacks. Black people need to understand that, despite our past, white people can be trusted and they need to have faith in the abilities of others.

– Myth three is that whites have come to believe in their own superiority, a certain God-given right to lead others and to control others. If the truth be told, apartheid is dead and with it should have died myths of superiority. Colonial mentalities must be exposed for what they are and excellence of all kinds determined by the quality of work done and by goodness and by the content of our character. Leadership qualities exist across the board.

– Myth four is that blacks have come to regard themselves as perpetual victims. Victimhood thus becomes the name of the game, which leads to a culture of entitlement, but also a sense they cannot overcome obstacles.

– Myth five – which blacks and whites share – is to blame the other for any wrongdoing, failures and so forth. In a relatively short time, SA has developed a rather advanced culture of finger-pointing and blame, instead of everyone taking responsibility for the realities and actions of their own making.

– Myth six: white or black business can go it alone. Capital has no colour. A range of business partners is necessary – black can learn from white and vice versa; men can learn from women, youth from the elderly and the elderly from the youth.

Depending on the product you sell or the services you offer, you may wish to take on a range of suitable, hard-working and highly skilled individuals to be part of your dream.

These are some of the myths that exist. These are the generalisations that we repeat at our own peril and that will be our downfall as business.

The reality on the ground shows something different and can demonstrate how wrong these perceptions and stereotypes are when it comes to forging real and permanent partnerships. These mind-sets will have to change and to change fast; the masks must be removed to see the real flesh-and-blood human beings beneath.

We need to have a common confidence and belief in each other, to cultivate a vision that is shared, to awaken to a new reality, in which we realise that our survival as a people depends on us working together.

We need to go beyond what the government wants, because what we want is what will take this country into economic prosperity. What we want as entrepreneurs will bring about a golden age.

The country requires new partnerships. The new challenges require new solutions. We need to create a reality for ourselves where we are actors and not acted upon, where we shape the economic ground on which we walk and not depend on others to clear the way. Business must wake up to this new positioning – how we forge links, how we actively position and market ourselves favourably as players in our local economies and in the world market.

Our history has written itself in black and white. Our present and future are far more multicoloured and magnificent than we can possibly imagine. As entrepreneurs, we need to start a new chapter in our history, no longer as black and white, but as South African business asserting itself nationally and in the world.

The future prosperity and social cohesion of our country require us all to act decisively, and now. We can be the agents of change.

 Mashaba is executive chairman of Lephatsi Investments. This article forms part of a series on transformation supplied by the Centre for Development and Enterprise.

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