Publication: Post Date: 2004-10-27 Reporter: Gitanjali Pather Reporter:

Our Fat Cats and Palm Greasers Rule the Roost




Date 2004-10-27


Gitanjali Pather

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It's almost the end of another long year and I have just about run out of steam. Johannesburg is hot and dry, the waves of heat rise in spirals of dust, bleaching the colour out of spring. I am not complaining as I particularly dislike the highveld winters but a little rain would be welcome.

That winding down feeling is hard to control given that for most businesses, this the time for intensive planning and strategising for the new year, so I can't indulge the need to take it easy right now. Thank God the Shaik saga is not being televised because this period would become a national productivity disaster. It has all of the elements of a good soapy - high flying politicians, corruption, bodyguards in sunglasses, and a reticent secretary who won't say why she left except that it was "personal" and so we wait with bated breath for the evening news to hear the latest salacious details.

Did the deputy president lie to Parliament? Irrespective of whether we hear the truth, the bottom line details are extremely clear for the man in the street - Schabir Shaik gave Zuma money so that Zuma could help him clinch some big fat lucrative deals. Yes, we heard that Shaik and Zuma were like blood brothers and what's a coupla millions between family, right?

South Africans have become pretty cynical about the antics of our noble parliamentarians and maybe that's why the ANC has joined the call to revisit the BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) policy. I am quite amused about the sudden media focus on the rollout of this policy. Almost two years ago I wrote a column about the dangers of fat cats hogging the cream and the inability of the policy to contribute toward fair end equitable redistribution of wealth in this country. The big deals are fat cats literally - well perhaps I am being a little unfair to the rather slim Patrice Motsepe, mining magnate of note. As managing director of a company that submits tenders for work, I am acutely aware that the awarding of these has little to do with empowerment or delivery.

More often than not, work is given to what I call "the club members". Lobbying, overseas trips and nice kickbacks are rewarded by the supposedly regulated and strictly monitored procurement policies in big corporates and parastatals. Working in the field of communications and marketing solutions, I routinely track the tender-awarding processes and note with a great deal of cynical interest how all of the work goes to the same people. Almost without exception, they are the middlemen, the so-called "consulting" companies comprising a board of directors with "connections" in the right places - the Porsche brigade. The work is then sub-contracted to companies like mine where people with skills actually work for a living.

There is a bitter irony in that we also happen to be a completely black company but we refuse to give kickbacks or grease any palms and I have been confronted by a number of very open offers. But the work does trickle back to us because they get awarded to clueless but connected fronting companies. I have moments of disquiet when we get sub-contracted. Are we part of this terrible cycle? The reality is that service that would cost R100 000 to the client if awarded to us directly, now costs R200 000 because the "connected" company slams 100% profit on to the job for themselves. Nice easy money for being a little friendly.

So the BEE policy can be described as a get rich scheme for very friendly people of colour, generally ex-comrades who have "gone into business". Last week a very prominent businesswoman, a Dr Baloyi, was interviewed by Interface on SABC on the whole saga that our country is only just waking up to. I was not at all surprised when she defended the big BEE giants and called the criticism unfair since they were being "entrepreneurial". In fact she urged average black South Africans to get off their backsides and become "entrepreneurial", and as chairperson of every blooming board in the country, she's a woman who knows what she's talking about, except when you live in Houghton.

I imagine she has little contact withe true entrepreneurial spirit of this country - the young African men and woman selling everything from phone accessories at intersections all over Gauteng, the rural women of Mpumalanga who squat besides boiling cauldrons of mealies in downtown Jozi, the skinny Pakistani immigrants who hawk cheap dishes outside the old Johannesburg Stock Exchange, or craftspeople who twist wire and thread beads into the most stunning works of art sold for a pittance in the very streets of the trendy Melville.

Ordinary black South Africans are an amazing and resilient people. Despite the ravages of apartheid, they continue to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds, wheeling and dealing to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Their spirit and their entrepreneurial abilities put the BEE giants to shame.

I know who Donald Trump would choose and it would not be Tokyo Sexwales, Cyril Ramaphosas, or Patrice Motsepes, but the gutsy, streetwise and loaded with potential, young black South African who survives on the street because of hard work, an innate savvy and the will to make good.

With acknowledgements to Gitanjali Pather and the Post.