I don't often blog about policy in South Africa, but recent frustrating back-and-forth on core policy centered on Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) has been frustrating to watch--especially given recent unemployment statistics that show a bad situation getting worse (see http://www.bdlive.co.za/opinion/editorials/2015/05/28/editorial-jobs-should-be-an-obsession).
So, here is my view on Black Economic Empowerment in South Africa (sorry for those who have no interest).
Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) has been a priority of the South African government for a number of years now. This is an appropriate and important priority, centered on empowering those who had been left behind by the past economic system. The BEE approach has centered largely on improving participation of these people in ownership and management structures in formal firms that were previously dominated by white men. This is an important aspect of adjustment and change in South Africa.
But most of the disempowered people in South Africa have not been empowered by such policies—and are unlikely to be empowered by such policies in the future. This is because the real empowerment problem is all about jobs, and BEE as currently shaped pays too little attention to incentivizing and supporting broad-based job creation.
My view on this is not original, but is reflected in government statistics for all to see. Labour force surveys count only 55% of Black African citizens as economically active, and only 70% of those who are active are employed. This means that about 17 million working age Black Africans are not working in the formal economy. The Coloured community and women suffer in this area as well, making up a population of over about 20 million South Africans who remain excluded from the formal economy. They are the truly disempowered South Africans. And there are more of them—in absolute and relative terms—since BEE began.
In 2008 I was part of a team from Harvard that advised government to expand the BEE regime to include a focus on job creation if it really prioritized economic empowerment. We suggested a simple approach for this, adding BEE dimensions to reward firms that hire new workers, and individuals who create new businesses, and firms that take the risk to produce new export products (especially manufactured goods that absorb less qualified labour). The theory behind this was simply that South Africa requires more small business, manufacturing, and export activity if it is to grow and create the kind of jobs its many unemployed people need. Read the report here, and summary ideas here.
These dimensions are still nowhere to be seen in the BEE scorecard (used to assess whether firms are BEE compliant), which has in many ways focused even more narrowly on ownership and participation at the top of the economy. The policy is imbalanced, and needs revision to focus on jobs at the bottom and middle of the economy as well. If this does not happen, BEE will continue to be a policy regime that simply misses the point on empowerment.