Business must be proactive on BEE for national prosperity and social cohesion - Corporate Events South Africa

SA is in crisis. You don’t need me to tell you that — you read it every time you open a newspaper, tune into a chat show or log on to social media.

There’s no denying it, but equally, there’s no point whatsoever in wallowing in it. We can do something to change — especially those of us who are in business or own businesses.

The company I formed was set up to help people grow the economy and create jobs by building small and medium-sized businesses that don’t just last, but flourish. Two years ago I was wondering how to take this further because of the catastrophic levels of distrust between business, government and labour.

One of the biggest issues we have in this country is not just the overwhelming negativity and associated feeling of powerlessness in the face of it, but the incredibly negative narrative about business, especially Bell Pottinger’s “white minority capital”.

The opportunity arose through the merging of the different black economic empowerment (BEE) codes. Before, enterprise development was a separate code, as was procurement. In the old days, you could take R100,000, tell someone to develop something and take the points. Now it’s a lot more difficult for corporates. You have to transition Johnny’s Bakery to become a supplier, which means they have to be on your procurement list — then you actually need to buy from them. There’s no box ticking here; if you want to get your points, Johnny’s Bakery actually has to be able to do the job.

It’s a new situation that is fraught with anxiety, forcing the transformation manager, enterprise development manager and procurement manager to work together — even though their roles might often conflict. Awards recognising small, medium and micro-sized enterprises (SMMEs), money and aid programmes are a dime a dozen, but there was nothing that recognised and rewarded the effort being put in by corporate SA — so we created the supplier development awards.

We didn’t want the usual kind of awards, where the winner doesn’t know why they’ve won and no one else is any the wiser either, which is why these awards seek to do three things: acknowledge the corporates who are developing suppliers, recognise them and then learn from them, creating best practice and fostering a collaborative spirit in the industry.

Last year we were overwhelmed by the response, receiving 400 entries across the five categories of the competition —newcomer, nation builder, local manufacturer and small supplier, innovator and impact, as well as an overall winner.  

We were looking for companies that did not see supplier development simply as a tick-box exercise on a BEE scorecard, but who had identified it at as a business imperative, as such, something their executive team would champion and which their company would master and excel at — because it is something that would keep them in business — not just because it was the right thing to do.

Those are the companies we want to recognise, reward and learn from because SA is one of the most unequal societies in the world.

More than half of us live on less than R1,000 a month and close to 40% of us who need jobs are unemployed. The answer to addressing both lies in the development of small businesses, but three-quarters of those fail within the first few years. Only 10% last beyond a decade. Unless we stimulate the economy and create real opportunities for small, black-owned businesses to enter the market, we will be in real trouble.

The upside is that helping to create more wealth and more jobs reverses the ever-shrinking market and benefits everyone. And business will have helped to do that, further redressing the relationship between us and the government, us and labour.

We have to reach out to one another, we have to create the good story to tell as business, but most of all we have to move with the times. Speaking to Henley’s dean Jon Foster-Pedley, I realised that collaboration is not just an African concept like Ubuntu, it’s a business imperative because of the predicament we are in. The days of companies holding on for dear life to their territories and their suppliers  are long gone; instead, we have to find ways of doing it together, of working together.

At the moment, far too many people are like the proverbial rabbit frozen in the headlights as the truck bears down upon them. Our message is that there are things you can do to build the future, not just for yourself, but for the generations to come: to create an industry and be part of a forum of like-minded business owners motivated to do the same.

• Wijnberg is CEO and founder of business development company Fetola and creator of the Absa Business Day Supplier Development awards.