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Class struggle: South Africa's new, and few, black rich

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But in its first few years, the bulk of BEE business deals have gone to the hands of a very few. According to government surveys in 2004, 68 percent of BEE deals went to just 6 black-owned businesses, all of which were owned by top members of the ANC party. However, in a 2005 survey, only 10 percent of deals were going to the top six companies, and 70 percent went to new entrants, particularly businesswomen and employee-owned businesses. The perception of favoritism has stuck despite the change.

Among the high-profile beneficiaries is Smuts Ngoyama, a former top member of the ANC who admitted to having received shares in a private company while serving as a government spokesman. When asked about his impropriety, Mr. Ngoyama told reporters that he didn't join the struggle to remain poor.

"There have been changes, but it needed a shove," says Lionel October, the deputy director for BEE policy in the ANC government. It is too soon to judge BEE, says Mr. October, since the policy has only been on the books since 2003.

Large firms such as the mining company Anglo American, the diamond company De Beers, and the massive services industry have mainly had to act on their own initiative to add a few prominent black faces to their otherwise white boards of directors, he says.

"It's not that business did this for ulterior motives, necessarily. It is hard to bring in new people who don't have a track record," says October. "But after a public outcry, when people were seeing the same names, you are starting to get more and more participation."

The program's critics should remember the dramatic circumstances before apartheid, October says, when whites owned 98 percent of South Africa's wealth.

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