Economic transformation is not a dilemma exclusive to SA, former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene said at the launch of the Financial Mail’s 2016 edition of The Little Black Book last week.
Addressing about 200 members of SA’s black business elite, Nene pointed out that race wasn’t the only barrier to transformation.
"[The issue of] who rises to the top of any society to run its public- and private-sector institutions is one of the most enduring questions," he said.
In the US, for example, religious affiliation used to be a determining factor, as Protestants, particularly Episcopalians and Presbyterians, were far more likely than people of other faiths to rise to the top of the business world.
"Then higher education took over ... At the start of the 20th century half the top [US] executives [were people whose] fathers held middle-class jobs and another fifth [had] even more affluent heritages," said Nene. The result, he said, was that women and African Americans found themselves stuck at the bottom of the pyramid.
Now economic disadvantage is the biggest hurdle.
"In SA and many other countries disadvantages in income and education are sustained through generations ... today only an exceptional individual can break through the socioeconomic barrier band and rise to [a position of] business leadership," he said.
The Little Black Book highlights nearly 150 people who have done just that — broken through such barriers. A third of them are women. These include Royal Bafokeng Holdings chair Monhla Hlahla and Plessey MD Zellah Fuphe. Their inclusion highlights the mark that black women are making at the top level of SA business, even if the numbers indicate that there is still a long way to go.
Though Nene’s message is not new, it carries weight in light of the 2016 employment equity report, which reveals that the racial profile of top management in SA remains overwhelmingly white and male.
Whites in the private sector account for 72.4% of all top management positions — compared with the public sector, which has 73.2% black representation.
Nene, whom President Jacob Zuma controversially replaced as finance minister with novice David Des van Rooyen in December, is now an adviser to Thebe Investment Corp and a nonexecutive director at investment management firm Allan Gray.