We are confusing professional capability with race, but even the most capable may not be able to effect change in places like Eskom
The reality of our situation is the constant reminder that a deviation from a principled and disciplined approach to how we run our affairs will always reignite the past we so much hope to get past.
We will always be reminded of apartheid and racial prejudice, and will continue to live in the shadow of our past.
We have to take a long journey before we can truly claim that we have indeed dealt with our past.
Years ago, we knew that we needed to relook at our electricity supply, public transport system and many other things.
We knew that the infrastructure then was designed to deprive the majority of the country’s people of services, and we knew that we needed to ensure that we expanded the services to include everyone.
Instead, we elected to procrastinate and bury our heads in the sand in the face of the inevitable.
We forgot that time would not wait for us.
Then began the era that we describe as state capture. We deliberately introduced a kleptocracy, knowing very well that there would be consequences.
This kleptocracy was not race-based. It was a coalition of thieves of all races, genders and social standing.
Some tried their level best to racialise the corruption that ensued.
We do not even need to import skills – as we did with SAA. In equal measure, the corrupt of whatever race must not be allowed near our public affairs.
As was revealed in the Zondo commission of inquiry, corruption knows no colour. After all, we inherited a hopelessly corrupt apartheid system.
Some of the realities are now upon us. The kleptocrats have collapsed our country.
The better ones before them failed to appreciate the future consequences of their procrastination.
Those who cried racism when black executives were appointed were happy to cry foul and wish that government would collapse to prove the point that they were indispensable.
Employment equity and affirmative action became swear words to those who were clearly anti-transformation.
Those who remained in the system became reluctant loyal workers.
People became less trusting, and those who supported transformation only did so when they benefited.
In similar terms, those who supported the kleptocracy also did so because they benefited.
We also have a new lobby that either opposes everything or will destroy anything if they do not get their way.
In the midst of all this, we forgot that capability is not a racial issue in real terms.
All we needed were men and women truly committed in the same way that we were during the most difficult time of our struggle.
We had these men and women of all races in the same way that we had criminals of all races who looted our system.
In some way, we have become obsessed with confusing professional capability with race.
This is why even those we entrusted with public power were able to mobilise on a racial basis in the same way that the anti-transformation lobby used race to discredit capable black executives.
With the benefit of hindsight, SAA’s woes go back to some white fellow who was declared a turnaround expert and who left behind a mess – but with his pockets full.
Then we had some black executives who were entrusted with our state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and who became the enablers of the looting.
The pattern is more or less the same in the private sector.
Read: SA’s ailing SOEs need strong leaders
The fact that we have to debate the appropriateness of replacing black executives with white executives is no small matter.
At the same time, we must ask whether the country must go to the dogs because appointing a white executive may not be appropriate.
Labour federation Cosatu’s spokesperson Sizwe Pamla said something quite interesting when he commented about the appointment of the new chief executive officer of Eskom, Andre de Ruyter.
Pamla suggested that, for a moment, Cosatu had to consider the national interest above the national transformation agenda.
He said this in the context of the fact that Eskom was clearly going to appoint a white person as its chief.
The obvious reality arising from his statement is that Cosatu does not want to be seen to have lost confidence in black executives.
At the same time, it appears the federation wants a properly functioning Eskom.
Pamla alluded to the fact that the practice of replacing black executives with white executives was not sustainable.
It is clear that Cosatu feels trapped between the devil and deep blue sea on this one.
It is also clear that the divide between black and white remains a reality.
It remains an unavoidable evil, despite the many years of struggling for a nonracial, nonsexist democratic society.
More disturbing is the fact that it has the distinct potential to further polarise an already polarised society.
There is no doubt that the various narratives that we have already heard will now find meaning in the situation we find ourselves in.
We have already heard murmurs of an anti-black executive brigade that is hellbent on removing black executives and replacing them with minority races.
We have already heard a call for black executives to boycott appointments in SOEs.
We also heard the narrative of how experienced and capable white men have been slaughtered at the altar of transformation.
We have not been provided with the full details of why government allowed Vuyani Jarana, the former chief executive of SAA, to leave.
He seemed to suggest that he was being frustrated when it came to the implementation of his turnaround plan.
This kleptocracy was not race-based. It was a coalition of thieves of all races, genders and social standing. Some tried their level best to racialise the corruption that ensued.
As Pamla correctly put it, there are many capable black executives out there.
Indeed, there are also those who embarrassed us in more than one way.
In similar terms, there are many white executives who presided over great messes.
In fact, it may even be foolhardy to attach race or gender to any success or failure story as far as executives are concerned.
It may be helpful to avoid confusing racism and the role of race in success and/or failure of any executive.
There is no doubt that past beneficiaries would have had far better exposure than the previously disadvantaged.
But nothing says the previously disadvantaged are less capable or that the previously advantaged are more capable.
It may as well be that we appoint white executives to run all of our SOEs and see if anything will change.
If major changes occur to the levels we desire, we will then have to ask the whether that represents white capability or not.
Read: The sad state of our SOEs: Government’s half in, half out approach is not helping
It is doubtful whether the turnaround of our SOEs still depends on the colour or gender of the executives we appoint.
It appears that even the most capable may not be able to make any impact, regardless of their colour or gender.
The downward spiral in our SOEs did not start now. In fact, most were conceptualised incorrectly from the very outset.
There is also the reality that our transition from apartheid was, after all, not that good at all.
In many instances, we appear to have not applied our minds correctly regarding what to do with what we inherited.
The policy decisions we made on certain issues have come back to haunt us.
Of course, we seem to suffer from the quick win syndrome.
Our lack of patience compromised our ability to be meticulous in how we managed the transition and the repositioning of these entities to serve the public good.
Clear case studies and classic examples of the irrelevance of race to our problems in SOEs are SAA, Transnet, Prasa, Denel and Eskom.
All of them have at one stage or another been headed by a black executive or a white executive.
If colour is what we’re going by, the SOEs ought to have performed better at one stage or another.
As we move on to address our obvious troubles, we may have to consider what comes first.
Do we want to be trapped in the race trap or do we want every single capable South African on board?
We obviously cannot tolerate racist executives. We do not need them because they will be toxic and exacerbate our troubles.
We need men and women of all races who are loyal enough to this country to come on board.
We do not even need to import skills – as we did with SAA.
In equal measure, the corrupt of whatever race must not be allowed near our public affairs.
If we characterise anyone we appoint and demand success from them based on race, we will move further away from the solution to our problems.
Mannya is an advocate, writer and executive director of legal services at Unisa
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