If the ANC presidential hopeful’s words didn’t startle you like a sharp gunshot above the noise from the Eastern Cape conference, where were you?
“We shouldn’t be apologetic. And I take exception to what Johann Rupert said, that radical economic transformation means – is a code for theft. I think we should condemn that in the strongest of terms. Coming from people who took our land? Coming from people who are monopolising the economy today? And of course they’d say that because they want to resist. So they want us to be scared that if we do it we’ll be seen as thieves. We’re not thieves. We are not thieves. Where there are thieves they must be caught and arrested, but we are not thieves, as black people,” Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma told Interfaith Prayer in Phoenix, northern Durban.
As Dlamini-Zuma can be on the few topics she has some conviction on, she was actually presidential: the recklessness of her words legitimised and reined in by a gravitas that surpasses her physique, she commanded a transfixed silence from the audience.
People only interjected to offer fleeting but passionate shouts of approval where approval couldn’t be contained.
The phrase “We are not thieves, as black people” is a lot like “black people can’t be racist” – grading on the curve, where one merely must appear more innocent than one’s accuser.
This populism strengthens the probability, hitherto diminished among possible future scenarios, that she and the ANC will win this December and 2019 respectively.
To stop that, the opposition would have to talk up an amended version of BEE. Once the cat of “radical economic transformation” was out its bag, nothing could put it back: not even Bell Pottinger’s fall.
It doesn’t matter, for example, that the money looted by this administration could have accomplished or could still accomplish that: the perception (exacerbated by incidences that increasingly show “reconciliation” to have been a trick of the light, like a rainbow) is that South Africa remains divided and unequal because the ANC-led government skipped reparations.
Dlamini Zuma has demonstrated the ease with which she can promise to fix that and justify looting.
This is where an amended version of BEE could be used by other parties as drawcards.
The DA once suggested lowering the “new entrant” threshold for the ownership element of BEE from R15 million to R10 million; the trade and industry department instead increased it to R50 million.
This threshold is the total asset net worth at which a black business-owner is considered “new” to the economy — R50 million.
For empowering a black person up until he exceeds that net worth in his or her personal capacity, the current BEE code rewards businesses with empowerment points.
Having R50 million in cash or assets when one’s debts are paid (that’s what total asset net worth in personal capacity means) should make BEE unnecessary unless one is giving kick-backs to politicians.
At R50 million, it should be possible to amass more wealth without the aid of a law created to effect redress.
If the new entrant threshold is lowered, the same wealth black billionaires make will, going forward, be less concentrated as a result of BEE; BEE will be accessible to a greater number of black people.
In theory, then, they would be absorbed into the mainstream economy, giving more of them and theirs a vested interest in voting with the economy in mind.
There would be more voters’ eyes keeping a direct line of sight on indicators like the exchange rate, our credit rating status and the like because their lives would be implicated even if it’s indirectly – through relatives and friends who’d have begun climbing the economic ladder.
Standing more firmly behind a thusly amended BEE would also get the DA out of the land ownership debate because the agricultural BEE sector codes speak to that.
The other thing the official opposition would have to do to stop Dlamini-Zuma and the ANC is repeat its Bell Pottinger victory with other multinational businesses.
If the Democratic Alliance could drag Bell Pottinger before the UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association for taking advantage of South Africa’s situation, then we’re ready to hear wonderful news of action being taken on all the other exploitative and unethical international companies and businesses that benefitted from the effects of apartheid and see them being dragged before relevant regulatory bodies and forums.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to begin compiling evidence that the DA isn’t all the horrible things it is often accused of being?
Many rich and powerful people will assume that our courts’ strong stance against corruption will translate into legal victories for the likes of Johann Rupert against the likes of Dlamini-Zuma.
But our courts have an equally strong hatred of the exploitation or understating of apartheid’s effects.
Our courts are not alone: no statutory or regulatory body anywhere would – upon having the spotlight turned on it – tolerate the abuse of economic power by a firm under its jurisdiction.
The question is whether our official opposition believes enough in the rule of law to do unto other businesses what it did to Bell Pottinger.
• Siya Khumalo is a blogger