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Transformation is Imperative but Saving Jobs should be prioritised



In his piece on the meaning of a war economy, James Galbraith wrote that the public obligation is to do what is necessary; i.e. to support the military effort, to protect and defend the home territory, and especially to maintain physical well-being, solidarity and the morale of the people.

War time creates anxiety and uncertainty. It brings out the best and worst in people. In some, it creates affection, solidarity and warmth, while in others, it creates greed, protectionism and self-centeredness. Inequality brings out exactly the same variety of negative traits as the latter in people.

If one investigates how racial and regional inequality affect economic opportunity, then a piece written by Shambaugh et al posits that, even in the United States, many African-Americans were denied transformational prospects and today remain situated in communities with the lowest prospects for upward mobility. “This is not an accident; it reflects both the intended and unintended consequences of policies that have dictated where people live and the opportunities people have in those communities”.

Despite the Great Migration of millions of African-Americans from the rural South to cities across the United States, the modern distribution of black Americans closely relates to the historical patterns of the black population. Shambaugh et al continued by saying that, “counties with disproportionately high shares of black Americans today are the same counties that had large black populations before the Civil War, suggesting that historical conditions have had extremely persistent impacts on the outcomes of African-Americans. Moreover, poverty in the Deep South tends to be much higher in counties with large black populations”.

During our first week of lockdown, I penned a piece on how our society mirrors the dichotomy that exists between the haves and have-nots. I am pleased that the piece had the desired impact and made us realise that the inequality we face around the globe is one that cannot simply be shoved under the table for ‘possible concern’ at a later date – and the current pandemic we face was the ideal backdrop to bring this anomaly to light.

South Africa’s inequality ‘epidemic’ is still prevalent given the imbalances in the economy where the black majority do not control a large part of the economy. Hence, the majority still feels left out and the Black Economic Empowerment scheme has drawn both ire and criticism from numerous sectors (both minority and majority), with many citing it as a platform to enrich friends and just a false front to attract investment capital – doing little to change the transformational landscape. Now, Covid-19 has thrown the BEE debate straight under the microscope again – with a high court ruling in favour of the Ministry of Tourism, seeing a BEE quota being mandatory to receive any economic relief during this pandemic.

Yet, even under these country-crippling and oft confusing times, economic transformation must remain top-of-mind to address the injustices of the past. Although transformation and inclusion are on the subtle rise to eradicate inequality, it’s clearly evident that more needs to be done. Managerial and senior positions are still mostly occupied by the previously advantaged groups. Access to capital is still being denied to the majority of blacks because of their historical backgrounds. A report in 2018 highlighted that only 38% of blacks are represented in Johannesburg Stock Exchange listed companies, while they comprise 80% of the country’s population.

Transformation is imperative as it entrenches the view of fairness and equality. A key characteristic of transformation, therefore, is the magnitude of change in terms of both depth and breadth. That a puppy becomes a dog, a boy becomes a man or a caterpillar becomes a

butterfly is a sign of transformation. I have always argued that transformation should happen on two levels and simultaneously – on an individual level and a social system level.

Transformation can also happen during war. It could be used as a weapon to revise the injustices of the past. Adopting a modular transformation calls for re-thinking, re-building and possibly re-engineering for the better. This process allows for reinforcement, time and again; deepens the learning, and knowledge.

Yes, war has the power to bring transformation, but it also has power to destroy what has been built overtime. The fact remains that no one knows what consequences war will bring. The only facts that are constant during war are that it will bring death and renewed life to some and show the best and worst in people.

Even though transformation remains imperative and necessary for addressing the imbalances of the past, I argue that as we suffer under siege from this global pandemic, jobs must be the priority – and we must get the balance between the two right – and start now.

Of course, saving jobs right now is a mammoth task, as Covid-19 is the decider and it does not differentiate between businesses big or small, white or black and does not choose which can or cannot live on. Simply put, if it can’t sustain itself under a lockdown, it’s soon dead in the water with all its jobs lost. Associated Media Publishing is one such example with Cosmopolitan Magazine, House & Leisure, Good Housekeeping and Woman on Wheels gone forever. I assume that individuals that have lost their jobs are all from different colour backgrounds, black and white alike.

Over the past week or so, many arguments from different opposing sides have used the courts to compel either party to accept the other’s views on whether transformation is necessary at this stage. I argue that transformation is necessary at this point, but to save every job where and when possible in South Africa, outweighs it amidst the pandemic.

Last week, the Finance Minister said that seven million jobs could be lost, while the Gauteng Premier said that between 250 000 – 500 000 could be lost in the region alone – and quickly. Experts say that opening up more sectors of the economy under very strict working conditions can help save countless jobs. Our report predicts that over 55,000 SMMEs will cease to exist post the pandemic.

Going back to transformation in tandem with the above, perhaps new opportunities can be taken advantage of, such as the procuring of PPE equipment from black local suppliers, etc which I believe that the Black Business Council and Business Leadership South Africa has been pushing for.

To close, transformative processes, job retention and creation can all be realised and sustained during this period. Yet we must ensure that we, as a nation, privileged or not, rich or poor, black or white have a mutual ambition to protect, serve and save the economic well-being of our country.

As James Allen noted, circumstances don’t make us, they reveal us.

Kizito Okechukwu is the co-Chair of the Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN) Africa; 22 on Sloane is Africa’s largest startup campus.

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