Headhunting at a minute before midnight: Business in South Africa may have done too little, too late to escape a black backlash, says Daniel Reed

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The Independent Online
IN 1982, Jacob Modise, 16, an orphan from Mamelodi near Pretoria, was about to leave South Africa to join Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's military wing in exile.

Two cousins and several friends had already skipped the country after the Soweto riots. Like many such youths, Jacob thought a short cut to solving the country's problems would be to take an AK-47 and shoot every 'whitey' on sight.

Twelve years later Jacob lives in a smart modern villa with a swimming pool in a white suburb of Johannesburg. He holds a well-paid managerial job, and is responsible for a budget of R20m (pounds 4m) at Teljoy, a large TV rentals firm. Instead of leaving, Jacob went to university and became a chartered accountant - one of only 64 blacks among 15,000.

'My views have changed,' he says. 'In my own way, even being a chartered accountant can still help my people. You can be a guerrilla and shoot people, or you can interact with whites and change their attitudes. I believe that's more useful.'

The Jacobs are a tiny minority in South Africa. The emergence of a black managerial elite has been vastly exaggerated. Only 2.5 per cent of managers and less than 1 per cent of senior managers are black, although blacks make up 75 per cent of the population. Yet only at the eleventh hour is South African business waking up to the fact that things must change.

'Demographically we have no choice. Politically we have no choice. Reality is starting to dawn on the white man,' explains Thea Wingrove, a consultant on 'affirmative action' (redressing the effects of discrimination) who works closely with ANC policy-makers.

By the year 2010 there will be 20 black South Africans for every white, six black high school graduates for every white school-leaver, and more than 80 per cent of disposable income will be in black hands. Moreover, most whites are already over 35 and most blacks under 35.

'You can be a member of the (extreme right-wing) Afrikaner Weerstandbeweging if you like, but you'll still have to draw your skilled people from the black population if you want to survive in business,' Ms Wingrove says.

And then there are this month's elections. The pressures on the newly elected ANC-led government of national unity to make things socially and economically more equal will be immense. For its part, business is rushing to preempt legislation on racial quotas or targets by training or poaching as many black managers as possible. Firms are even sending delegations abroad to recruit black students and political exiles.

Demand is vastly outstripping supply. 'We are standing at the universities, waiting for the graduates as they come off the press,' Ms Wingrove says. South Africa is suffering from a carefully engineered shortage of black skills. Apartheid was essentially 'affirmative action' for Afrikaners. It created white-collar jobs for huge numbers of landless, unskilled Afrikaner peasants in the 1940s and 1950s, breaking the monopoly of English-speaking whites in these jobs.

Today 80 per cent of Afrikaners are office workers. Lurking in the back of many white managers' minds today is the fear that a future black government might take a leaf out of the National Party's book.

'We've been pushing for affirmative action now for nearly 20 years. There has been lip service, but no real action,' says Lot Ndhlovu, director of the influential Black Management Forum (BMF).

A few corporations began training black managers on a small scale in the late 1970s, in the wake of the Soweto riots. Anglo-American, for instance, the mega-corporation that dominates South African business, began a 'cadet scheme' for black school-leavers. Up to 100 cadets received bursaries every year.

Jacob Modise was one of the lucky few. He was particularly good at maths. His teachers urged him to apply for a bursary. He and nine others went to the University of the Witwatersrand to study accountancy, though only Jacob qualified.

'Black students have much tougher, more complex lives,' explains Dr Nick Binedell, director of the Wits Business School.

But Anglo's cadets and other bursary schemes were too few, too late. And there was another problem: the few blacks who reached management level not infrequently discovered they were being given token jobs.

'It's the 'front-office nigger' syndrome,' says Bobby Godsell of Anglo-American. 'You give a black executive a title, an office with a white secretary, and a Mercedes, without any real responsibilities. Johannesburg is littered with black executives with drink problems and broken marriages. We have set our face against that.'

In its hour of need, therefore, South African business cannot find enough black managers to achieve the 'demographic representation' targets everyone acknowledges must be part of any company's business plan, in the same way as cost-cutting, market share or profit levels. So corporate headhunters are doing a brisk trade. 'There's been a huge increase since 1990. The trigger was political. Companies are thinking that if they don't achieve demographic representation, sooner or later they will have racial quotas imposed on them,' says Lucia Rose, head of Executive Resources, a corporate search agency specialising in managerial and executive blacks.

The shopping frenzy continues unabated, with black managers spending ever shorter periods in one job before being headhunted to another: 18 months is the average.

There is talk of a 'training levy' on companies who poach black managers. A total of perhaps 4,000 black managers are being chased by all the large players.

'Our main concern is how to retain the people we have, in an organisation where it takes anyone - white or black - 10 to 15 years to become a senior manager,' admits Mr Godsell. 'There is an epidemic of MBA-itis among young black managers: 'I've got my MBA, where's my managing directorship?' '

'Twenty to 40 per cent of junior or middle-level black managers stay less than two years or leave immediately after completing their training,' says Judy Gathercole, head of human resources at Old Mutual, the life assurance company.

The problem is that South African business does not have 10 years to put its demographic house in order. Public opinion will demand results soon. 'There is no way we can rely on voluntarism,' Lot Ndhlovu says. 'In the Eighties we used to talk about self-imposed affirmative action. It didn't bear any fruit. Reversing inequality needs enforcement and compliance.'

Last year the BMF published a set of targets - 'not quotas, realistic negotiated targets', Mr Ndhlovu emphasises - for South African business: by the year 2000, 70 per cent of supervisors ought to be black; 50 per cent of junior managers; 40 per cent of middle; and 30 per cent of senior management, plus 20 per cent of executive directors.

If, or rather when, the ANC comes to power, will 'affirmative action' be enforced through, for instance, racial targets as proposed by the BMF? The ANC's latest policy document (Reconstruction and Development Programme, Seventh Draft) is irritatingly vague.

The consensus in South African business circles seems to be that business will be given a chance to mend its ways. If that doesn't work, legisation will be enacted with penalties for failure to meet affirmative action targets.

Whatever the outcome, the basic problem will not go away: there are not enough black managers, action or not. A new generation is entering university; it will be a decade before they begin to play a leading role. South Africa's ailing economy will have to manage as best it can in the meantime. 'There is no short cut,' says Mr Ndhlovu soberly. 'We will have to grow our timber.'

Jacob and the Headhunter, part of BBC2's Beloved Country series, will be screened tomorrow at 9.30pm.

(Photographs omitted)