‘Theory is important … because how we understand our world enables us to direct our actions in a manner that is most fruitful and more likely to achieve the results we seek.’(Suttner, 2011)
This statement sums up the fundamental challenge affecting black economic empowerment (BEE), namely, that there is little agreement as to what it is. To some people, BEE is a programme to facilitate change in society. To others it is a vehicle for building relations between business and the state. Still others see BEE as an instrument for the advancement of black people, while many people perceive it as a vehicle for elite enrichment.
Nor has it been clarified what BEE is supposed to be doing. The name would suggest that BEE operates across the economy and involves the economic empowerment of black people. If so, why are there different programmes in different sectors, dealing with different people? Is the employment equity project not about empowering black people? Because there is land reform and BEE, does that mean that agriculture is not considered to be an economic activity or that rural people are not black? How is it that everyone ostensibly agrees that BEE is a worthwhile endeavour yet it is proving almost impossible to achieve the desired results for the programmes associated with it?
To paraphrase Suttner, the problem is that there is no body of theory that adequately informs the BEE project and, therefore, little to direct our actions and help us to achieve the results we seek. This chapter seeks to address this shortcoming by advancing the case for BEE to be understood as having evolved into a powerful institution that transcends its origins and the interests of those who gave rise to it.
South Africa evolved over more than three centuries as a country wherein the majority of its citizens were prejudiced against on the basis of race (Terreblanche, 2002). As a result, the new government in 1994 faced the task of addressing centuries of discriminatory practice that had become rooted in the socio-economic structures of the country and in the values and beliefs of its citizenry (MacDonald, 2006).