By Anton Ressel, Senior Consultant and Director
There is a quote by Thabo Mbeki I’ve always resonated with. Mostly for its simple and undeniable message, but also because so few seem to actually get it.
“We can’t treat the matter of black economic empowerment as just the redistribution of existing wealth. It really has to focus on new investment, on growth, on development of employment and so on,” says our former president, an erudite, if a tad ineffectual, man.
In recent times, when the topic of economic empowerment of the historically marginalised comes up, it’s been about land expropriation and redistribution. Take it from those who have enjoyed an unfair share of the pie for too long and give it to those who have been excluded. The part about economic inclusiveness through growth is left out all too often.
The problem with this is that ultimately nobody wins, especially our frail economy. Whether we
are talking about land, wealth, contracts, access to education or healthcare, history shows that taking from one group of citizens and giving to another, whether under the guise of socialism, communism, democracy or any other political or economic model, is inherently doomed to failure. It’s not difficult to see why – redistribution makes investors twitchy, which results in capital flight, stalled foreign investment and an altering of the status quo that can take years to stablise. The widespread retrenchments in mining and related sectors are just one example.
Certainly, other factors have contributed to this reality, but only the most partisan observer would say that talk of nationalisation of the mines, relentless union pressures and the increasingly bullish ownership demands as espoused in the much-maligned Mining Charter (put forward by Mosebenzi Zwane) have had no role to play on our shrinking mining sector. Traditionally, this has been the absolute backbone of our economy.
Nobody can deny that the way wealth is distributed in our country needs to change. Too many people are trapped in a poverty cycle that also ensnares their kids and grandkids. However, only a growth mindset can make this a reality. In other words, we need a bigger pie.
The good news is that we have the blueprint. The National Development Plan and several other economic stimulus strategies, incorporating B-BBEE and increased participation of marginalised citizens in our economy, provide the direction we need to kickstart our flagging growth. We currently spend millions, if not billions, on BEE and SED initiatives – so let’s be circumspect and make sure our money is being spent wisely and for maximum impact.
We must invest in programmes and funds that deliver results, not just BEE points. We must make sustainable BEE central to our strategy, not just ticking a box. We must work together to create an environment that encourages investment and treats business as the answer, not the enemy.
Our time is now for genuine, selfless cooperation and implementation across all sectors. If we can find each other, pool our resources and put our country first, I believe our potential is limitless.
Words like redistribution are great tools at the ballot box, but counterproductive if one is trying to build a winning nation. Thabo Mbeki was right – we need to grow the pie because a big pie will feed us all.