” It was bewildering coming from someone whose business seems to have benefitted massively from the black economic empowerment (BEE) concept. His statement was also remarkable because this entrepreneur, who is not older than 43 years, was at some point the epitome of BEE. Or so I thought.
Further discussion revealed that the entrepreneur, who said he was looking for an appropriate opening (or platform) to make his views public, was referring to that widely practised but maligned doppelgänger (double walker) of the affirmative action concept for potential entrepreneurs instead of the lofty, broad-based empowerment aimed at uplifting people kept behind in the stakes for prosperity by apartheid and colonialism.
This entrepreneur not only scoffed at ‘BEE’, he condemned it as a problem that could destroy Namibia’s future.
“BEE,” he said, “teaches young people the wrong way of doing things. A youth sees me driving an expensive car and he starts to aspire to that because all the BEEs are only showing off their money, expensive vehicles, clothes, shoes and cellphones. Their primary goal is to get young girls at the university.”
More disgustingly, he added, many ‘BEEs’ he knows hardly do any work in the companies they supposedly own. They leave the day-to-day hard work to others while they spend their days wining and dining, intent on closing more ‘BEE’ deals to set up more companies rather than building value in existing businesses.
“I prefer to sweat within my businesses and grow them, working tightly with my 780 employees, than chasing more BEE tenders.” It was difficult to stop him talking.
The entrepreneur complained that he gets very upset with ‘BEE boys’ who take advantage of young women desperate for an education. He wondered how “they sleep” knowing that one of those “girls” could soon come home with their sons as potential wives.
The trouble with BEE – as it is practised and as many of its proponents insist should be made into law – is that it militates against what Namibia needs.
BEE as we have come to know it places massive emphasis on shareholding in a business without the concomitant hard work and responsibility associated with ownership.
BEE gives the impression that blacks only aspire to take over and replace white ownership instead of growing entrepreneurs and creating greater monetary and societal value in the country. The current practice and the malign form of BEE places great emphasis on aesthetics rather than substance.
It creates an impression that empowerment is an ephemeral undertaking, hence the attitude of ‘grab the opportunity’, cash out as fast as possible, and move on to the next deal. This is evident in the awarding of natural resources such as fishing rights and quotas, mining and exploration licences (EPLs), and government tenders.
Many who have received such largesse have kept going back for more without evidence that they have created value for the country apart from themselves.
It is as if there is no consciousness that the public resources that government allocates to the lucky ones are finite, and should be harnessed to improve the quality of life for all citizens and future generations.
Empowerment, especially for the needy and most vulnerable, is necessary in Namibia. The wealth gap between classes is growing with the majority increasingly left with little to make it through any day. But BEE we do not need.
BEE has not helped narrow the gap. It has, for sure, helped a few blacks join the ranks of the nouveau riche, home to so many whites before and after independence. In fact, the nouveau riche whites have happily opened the doors for the consumerist “previously disadvantaged” while keeping it tightly shut for the majority and the needy.
The most disturbing phenomenon is that BEE has accentuated the suffering of most Namibians.
Yet the black businessman who criticised BEE this week has given me a glimmer of hope that the search for a decent life for many Namibians is not a lost cause. His concerns should be heeded by many citizens, especially the BEE beneficiaries.
As it is, BEE is not the way to empower the majority of Namibians. Empowerment is the greatest equaliser. But our approach to economic empowerment should start by looking at the basics – ownership with responsibilities, education, shelter – not short-sighted state largesse to a few.