The US is in crisis. The volcano simmering under the land of milk and honey has erupted due to the brutal attack by a white policeman, Derek Chauvin, on an unarmed black man, George Floyd. Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for six minutes and three seconds while Floyd protested that "I can’t breathe." Floyd then fell inert, yet Chauvin kept his knee on him for another two minutes and 43 seconds before standing up, as if to say: "Another one down."
In a moving eulogy for Floyd, the Rev Al Sharpton spoke of various scenarios where black people have been "kneeled on" by white people. It sparked tears for those who thought their lack of success was due to an inherent inability to succeed, a lack of intelligence, or overambition. Sharpton was clear: this failure was really because of the knees on their necks.
This struck a raw nerve. I felt such pain when I reflected on the first decade of SA’s democracy, with its high hopes of an inclusive economy and the black business people whose work dominated headlines and were a source of inspiration for many. I thought of the black professionals whose ambition to excel was short-lived.
Back then, the notion of an inclusive economy was in the air — you could breathe it. Sadly, 26 years later, I see none of those stars. Even magazines like Enterprise and Tribute, which featured them, were suffocated into liquidation or closure.
The truth is, the knees on their necks suffocated them. Their pleas for help went unanswered because no-one was empathetic, no-one understood what they meant when they said: "I can’t breathe."
Listening to Sharpton, I cried as I wondered what success would have looked like for SA had there been no knees on the necks of these people, and what we could have become.
SA has wished for an inclusive economy for more than two decades. The legislation is in place, but we need to be specific about the outcomes of the inclusive economy we are trying to build. That outcome should reflect that "Black Livelihoods Matter" and "Solid Black Balance Sheets Matter".
Yet there are many knees making it impossible for SA to become inclusive that have escaped legislation. These are engraved in the hearts of South Africans who have lost hope.
Recently I met a graduate who hadn’t been able to find work for three years, so resorted to being a domestic worker. Another was unemployed for two years before taking a job at a call centre. Others are asked to demonstrate experience before they’re hired.
I think of a conversation I had with a white expert, who got his break when he was allocated a task by a client in a sector he was unfamiliar with. He was supported and nurtured into the expert he became. Had he been black, he would have been asked for his track record or proof of academic prowess before getting that chance.
My own journey as an entrepreneur could have been easier had I not been knelt upon. Sure, I had many supporters, but I also had others who made it near impossible to breathe. Some of the challenges I had, which are still the norm for black professionals today, include:
- Crippling and suffocatingly late payment of invoices;
- Being disqualified for tenders due to technicalities or unnecessarily high requirements;
- Weighting on tenders biased towards established businesses;
- Cancellation of contracts due to inherent challenges facing any business;
- Nonrenewal of contracts because "it’s someone else’s turn";
- Refusal to pay kickbacks;
- Insisting on undercutting prices. One black client demanded a reduction of our fee because "the cars I have seen in your parking bays show you are overpaid";
- Unfair competition with established brands. I was once told by a white executive that if my audit firm made a mistake it would reflect badly on his judgment, while the same mistake by a big white firm would reflect on that firm alone;
- The assumption that there is a "corruption factor" when a black person generously supports a black business, while there is a "trust factor" when white businesses support each other, and a "wisdom factor" when a black person appoints a white firm.
Having retired from business, I lose sleep over those who still cannot breathe. I am worried about the next generation who are inspired by what they think is success, unaware that they will feel that knee on their necks. I am concerned about the stars who are rising, and I wonder who will decide how they should wane into darkness, and when.
Today, these knees must be lifted. And it is urgent. Black South Africans need to breathe. The time for change is now. I make this call completely unarmed: please don’t kneel on the messenger.
- Zilwa is the co-founder of audit firm Nkonki, who retired in 2016. She is the youngest woman to win SA’s Business Woman of the Year Award