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[Opinion] Employment equity: getting balance right between transformation and capability by Nonkululeko Gobodo

August 12, 2013

Nonkululeko Gobodo believes the frustratingly slow progress of transformation can partly be blamed on way employment equity is implemented:

“I HAVE chosen to focus on the gap between transformation and capability because although we are doing a lot right in this area, with our employment equity laws, we still need a lot more to be done to capacitate both the private sector and the state.

To be sitting with so many people uneducated and unemployed is a mistake; no matter how much we grow as a country, we will still have to support this poor, uneducated majority.

It is a vicious cycle; people come from a family that is poor and even if they are bright, they do not get a chance to achieve the qualifications they are capable of, so they end up poor too, and the story repeats over and over again. We will never fully reach our potential as a country until we address that; education has to be at the centre of our strategy and vision for the country.

I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me — many of our poor youth do not have that.

We have clerks with SizweNtsalubaGobodo whose parents do not understand what exactly they are studying; a few fortunate ones may have had teachers that inspired them, but most of our youth do not have the role models they need. We have pockets of initiative trying to address that, but we need to invest more in the education of this coming generation and skilling them in ways that will take the country to another level.

Ticking boxes is not enough

We also need an economic strategy that is clear about what we want to achieve, so that educational development can be informed by that strategy. If we do not have a guiding vision, we do not know where to concentrate our efforts. I say there is a trade-off between transformation and capability because if you look at our employment equity strategy, I think that the intentions are good, but there are problems. For one thing, the public sector takes it very seriously, but I think the private sector is lagging behind. That is shortsighted — companies may be comfortable now, but if we do not address the problem of the poor it is going to catch up with us. We are already experiencing problems with people who are angry and tired of waiting for transformation in their own lives. Business will not be sustainable in that environment.”

The new private-public drive to transform education

Although the government is doing a lot to upskill black people, I am, however, concerned about the lack of support for their African women leaders. You cannot have programmes that do not have support systems for the people you are targeting to empower. The result is that we are creating casualties within this group of people when they get removed from their positions of leadership. Paradoxically the very focus on this group has, as a consequence of the lack of mentorship and support, created their disadvantage. The country loses twice — by not receiving great service output and gender equality, but also by creating the conditions for failure for what should be a talented group of leaders.

I would rather see us commit to the skilling of people rather than concentrating on numbers. There is a tendency in some companies to tick boxes and say, “alright, we have the BEE numbers, even if they just sit in a corner and we don’t bother to upskill them”. At the end of the day, you get people who do not have the skills they need to perform at that level. I have met some — from big companies, too — who do not have the skills you would expect from people who were put in a position with a title. The country loses if that is all we do.

And companies that comply for compliance sake often create a hostile environment for equity appointments — black people are let in the door, but they are not given the support they need to become better skilled. For someone from Qumbu, who was educated by their grandmother on a state pension, the whole environment is very intimidating. So there is a tendency for them to switch jobs a lot.

I would rather they take fewer people and commit to training them to a level when they can compete globally. For the sustainability of our country, we need to commit to that vision, rather than statistics and compliance. We have to put heart and soul into educating and skilling our people. I would love the private sector to see that vision. There are some examples where they do — the Thuthuka Bursary Fund, which the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants started, is showing that if you support and mentor disadvantaged BCom students properly, they can outperform their more privileged contemporaries. It is because they have been prepared; the programme is committed to producing leaders of substance who can effect real change.

Change is hard, but ignoring it does not make it easier. I understand why this is hard for a lot of companies. It is a difficult position to be in — many established businesses have new challenges they never had in the apartheid years. When all black people could be was a labourer or a domestic worker, they were fine — but now they have to contribute to the development of a whole lot of people they never had to worry about before.

I think short-term objectives may be blinding some of them.

This is not about short-term profits — it is about a long-term strategy. The situation as it is now is simply not sustainable. Let’s stop this lip service to compliance. Instead of making 30 equity appointments, make only 10 — but spend the same amount as you would have on 30, to make sure that those 10 are developed into leaders of substance who can improve the country in 20 years’ time, and who will each develop 10 more outstanding leaders. It is pointless to hire 30 people but not develop them so they cannot contribute to economic or any other growth, because they were never empowered with the right skills.

It is substance that is lacking. At least let’s get this right at the basic level.

Let’s all take responsibility for our past, and work together to fix it. We all need to contribute to reversing the mistakes of the past if we are to have a future we want to live in. Let’s commit to paying it forward, to lifting people up in the best way we can. It will have a multiplying effect: those 10 equity appointments that a company trains and mentors properly will each empower another 10 leaders. And Western business culture can meet them halfway; do not expect people from such a different background to just “adapt” without a life skills programme, for example. We could wake up in 10 years’ time and be amazed at how we have moved forward as a country. We cannot change things overnight, but neither can we forget about the millions who are still poor — it is about the critical mass of people you can build, so that each generation can make things better. If we do not address the need for leaders of substance, all of our children are going to suffer in the future.

• Gobodo was South Africa’s first female black chartered accountant, before starting her own practice in Mthatha. She is now executive chairwoman of SizweNtsalubaGobodo.


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