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Eskom and the myth of ‘black incompetence’

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SOME 25 years into our democracy, discriminatory practices are still prevalent in the workplace. An integrated approach to employability will start to tackle this, writes Dr Aradhana Ramnund-Mansingh, an academic at MANCOSA and former Human Resource Executive.

What does the mismanagement of parastatals such as Eskom, SABC and SAA in recent years translate to? The common public opinion when reviewing social media is that “black people cannot manage organisations, they are corrupt and they practice nepotism”.

Earlier in 2019, former finance minister, Trevor Manuel, confirmed that the past 12 CEOs and executives cost Eskom almost R514 million. Now, the caped hero André du Ruyter has ridden in to save the day! And they all lived happily ever after…

If only it were as simple. Let us rewind to “once upon a time” where the South African workplace was extensively divided, with all skilled and management positions reserved only for white people.

Everything from education to land and freedom of movement was controlled. Even higher education institutions were divided. Black academics and students could only be affiliated with universities and technikons for either black, Indian or coloured people, otherwise known as “bush colleges”.

As South Africans, we believe ourselves to be free from the shackles of apartheid, to be a new democratic generation. The only thing that South Africans are free to do is vote! We have a backlash against our legislation of B-BBEE and Employment Equity reporting and targets, and the fact that there is no defined end period. The Human Rights Commission was scrutinised about Affirmative Action and Employment Equity policies being unconstitutional.

The burning questions that need to be asked are: In a free and equal South Africa, why do we still have under-resourced rural schools; why do we have a private schooling system which benefits an elite and privileged few and; how do we move away from legislation such as the Employment Equity when in a country with a population in excess of 58 million, 80% are black but hold only 15.1% of the top management positions and 8% of the white population hold 66.5% of these positions, according to the 2018/19 analysis of the combined Employment Equity reports for public sector and private sector?

We look at a small percentage of black people who have thrived and focus on their successes, but where do the majority fit in?

In the field research I undertook into manufacturing industries countrywide, interviewing black and white engineers and human resource practitioners, it was confirmed to a large extent that black engineers are marginalised in many of these organizations due to the fact that they have no formal qualification from previously white higher education institutions.
The common perception is that they cannot be “trusted” as engineers. Companies recommend that they work under the mentorship of a younger, sometimes less-experienced white engineer due to the fact that the latter has undergone a more “reliable” education system.

In understanding what transpires in the workplace, we need to take cognisance of the fact that education systems have not democratised with our country’s democracy. One needs to take note of the current 2019 statistics where South Africa has 1966 independent/private schools, 23 796 public schools of which approximately 11000 are rural schools, mainly found in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo.

The challenges faced in these latter schools are immeasurable, from under-qualified teachers to the complete lack of any resources or suitable infrastructure. The question once again is posed, in a free and democratic South Africa, how free and democratic is our education system, and what is the extent of the transformation, post-apartheid?

So, how does all of this relate to Eskom and the saga of the failed CEOs?

With the advent of the Employment Equity legislation, many companies elevated black individuals without proper guidance or mentorship and not taking full cognisance of our unique political landscape and how it has defined the manner in which our realities are constructed.

If we continue this path of not growing black leadership and seeking rescue from white people, as is the case with our new Eskom CEO, how do we start moving away from historic ideologies of job reservation and start to balance the racial business leadership statistics in line with the demographics of the country?

To realise the mutually-inclusive and equal fantasy, where black South Africans are able to heal and succeed, private higher education is starting to play a significant role in the transformation of the way education is structured and facilitated.

This may be a small step but a step in the right direction. A holistic approach including a review of the entire formative school structure, working with higher education and large organisations is the key to growing South Africa. Based on international models, private higher education institutions are working towards focused practical workplace applications in line with theoretical frameworks.

This focus on an integrated approach to strive for employability will start to eradicate much of the discriminatory ills of our society. Business schools are educating their students on real life business practices globally and locally by first-hand experience.

While learnerships, youth grants and Sector Education and Training Authority -funded training may benefit young learners, there needs to be a holistic drive towards developing black leadership in the country.

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