Fortunate few have reaped rewards of apartheid's end

As South Africa promotes black employment, the CEO of an accounting firm has come to epitomize economic empowerment

January 16, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PARKTOWN, South Africa -- Thabo Mosololi climbs into his maroon Mercedes-Benz 190 outside his pink-walled, custom-built house in the black township of Soweto and heads for his executive office in this affluent Johannesburg suburb.

He is the fashion-plate modern male, dressed in a dark business suit, blue shirt and yellow tie. His head is shaved. A gold watch glitters on his wrist. As he drives through the heavy traffic to work, his cell phone, with its trendy blue facia, rings repeatedly.

It is not a long journey. But it is the fulfillment of a dream nurtured by his people for decades. For at age 29, Mosololi is the epitome of the economically empowered black in the new South Africa.

He is chief executive officer of one of this country's three major black-owned accounting firms. He earns $135,000 a year, more than enough to "live a good life," as he puts it.

"Things are there for the taking, if you are young and black," he says, relishing his good fortune under black majority rule in South Africa.

Fifteen years ago, Mosololi was a high school dropout, a participant in Soweto's student uprising against apartheid, the system of white supremacy and racial segregation that demeaned, repressed and often brutalized blacks.

He sacrificed his high school graduation to join the struggle against apartheid. Soweto, an acronym for South West Township, was the crucible of black unrest. Built in the 1950s and '60s to keep blacks out of sight from the Johannesburg whites -- except when their labors were needed -- it quickly became the center of urban black culture, defining the politics, style and music of the day.

Site of the struggle

In the 1970s, Soweto became a primary battlefield in the struggle against apartheid with fierce and fatal confrontations between the township's inhabitants and white authorities. The township became virtually ungovernable.

"During the day, if you could imagine what it was like with the uprising, the rioting, it was terrible," recalls Mosololi's mother, Ceasarine.

When not on the streets, Mosololi took part-time classes to get into the black University of the Western Cape, where he intensified his activism.

His parents, peace-abiding people who ran a general store in Soweto, were worried about him, but he told them he was fighting for better education, accommodation and financial support at the blacks-only college.

"They were quite surprised that in the end the things that I was fighting for, and my beliefs at that time, were actually right," he says.

With the struggle won, Soweto, the largest black city in the country with a population of about 1 million, remains the hub of black urban activity -- good and bad.

It is an eclectic mix of squatter camps, working-class homes and smart suburbs. It has its traditional shebeens, or bars, and its swinging jazz clubs. In the unlikeliest of transformations, it has become a tourist attraction for foreigners wanting a township experience.

But blacks there, and elsewhere, bear the brunt of a national unemployment rate that is heading above 30 percent. The economy has shed more than a half-million jobs since black majority rule took hold in 1994.

To correct the inequities of the apartheid era and increase black representation in the workplace, corporate boardrooms and the financial arena, the government of Nelson Mandela and now Thabo Mbeki have pursued black economic empowerment and affirmative action.

After the end of apartheid, black participation on the commercial and financial fronts rapidly increased. Of 206 new company listings since 1996 on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, 55 have sizable black share holdings, and 13 are controlled by blacks, according to BusinessMap, a Johannesburg consultancy.

In 1998, black companies invested $3.5 billion in the equity of traditionally white companies, according to a survey by BusinessMap. This compared with black empowerment deals worth $833 million in 1997, and $266 million in 1996.

Expansion slows

But since 1998, the expansion of black empowerment activity has been reversed, according to Legae Securities, an independently owned stockbroker specializing in black empowerment on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

In June 1998, "black chip" companies -- in which blacks and individuals of mixed race hold at least 35 percent of voting shares or are controlling shareholders -- represented 4.3 percent of the stock exchange's financial and industrial index. By September last year, the share had shrunk to 2.7 percent in the wake of a bearish stock market in the fourth quarter of 1998 and some spectacular failures of black enterprises.

Legae predicts a further "strong dilution" of black influence on the stock exchange as established companies switch from funding black equity deals to using black suppliers as a means of helping the economic transformation of the country. The stockbroker also warns that this could provoke "unpopular policies" from a government committed to dramatically increasing blacks' share of the economic pie.

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