BOOK REVIEW: No smoke and mirrors as business chief recounts a painful past
Black leaders get undermined in SA and that’s the issue Bonang Mohale explores in this book on lessons learnt
“If business genuinely cares about this country, its peoples and its future, it will recognise that you cannot take a person who has been hobbled in chains for decades out of his chains, line him up at the start of a race and expect him to compete against athletes who have been running free and think that you have been fair.”
This is how, Bonang Mohale, born in Etwatwa, Benoni and CEO of Business Leadership SA (BLSA) relates how he is contributing positively for the benefit of country and its people, and to reverse his painful experience under apartheid.
Rather than resorting to the familiar tricks of autobiography-lite, Mohale has shaped a richly imagined, tremendously moving piece of work and, in his own words, “a simple collection and documentation of what I have learned over the course of my business, leadership and personal journey to date”.
The book’s genius is not to explain but to share the experiences that shaped his life. Its title is drawn from the Lift as You Rise project of the Anglican Students Federation, which had a vision to be a helping hand to those who need assistance as a way of giving back to society.
One of the prominent themes of the book is the role that business can play in SA by claiming its space in society. Mohale refers to the “business believes” initiative in which BLSA’s members have committed to a contract with SA to create jobs by growing the economy; empower and encourage senior black leadership; invest in South Africans and communities; support small businesses; and condemn and root out corruption.
The contract’s commitments are neutral and can be used to forge unity between the Black Business Council (BBC) and Business Unity SA (Busa).
Mohale writes that BLSA believes in and supports transformation and laments that, “it is not helping this agenda when business appoints a black chairman and, for the first time ever and in a newly created position, a white deputy chairman, thereby sending a message that we don’t really trust this black chairman.
“It is too early to start replacing the very few black CEOs with white ones. Why, when it is now the turn of a black CEO to be appointed, all of a sudden ‘joint CEOs’ are appointed — one black and another white, to hold the hand of this black CEO?”
Contrast this belief and support with an Engineering News article on the looming restructuring of Eskom, which states that group executives for generation, transmission, distribution and capital will report to the COO rather than the group CEO.
These three divisions are the reasons for Eskom’s existence. Does this mean that the group CEO will only be responsible for IT and procurement and those heads will be demoted to a lower level of GMs that include the support departments such as strategy, risk and sustainability, security, audit and forensics and corporate affairs? These actions illustrate the continuing marginalisation of black professionals in SA.
Mohale is one of the few in the black community who took time to record their part of their life experiences. This is no mean feat.
Business can reward his effort by accelerating black and white business unity in sync with the September 2011 summit organised by the then Confederation of Black Business Organisations, after the Black Management Forum’s withdrawal from Busa when the BBC regrouped under the leadership of Patrice Motsepe “to ensure unity among black businesses”.
Pronouncements made at the summit, such as the commitment to build a new community of black entrepreneurs, the criminalisation of fronting and funding of entrepreneurship education are echoed in the “contract with SA”, which pledges to “empower and encourage senior black leadership; invest in South Africans and communities, support small businesses and root out corruption”.
In his review of The Devil’s Company by David Liss, Liebermann Papers author Frank Tallis wrote that “historical fiction is mostly smoke and mirrors. Modern writers really don’t know what it was like to live in the past — no matter how much research they do — so the success of the enterprise depends largely on creating a convincing illusion. In this respect, the novelist’s principal tool is language, which must sound authentic but never drag or test the reader’s patience”.
Mohale’s book is no convincing illusion. He writes passionately about his personal and working life and his book can be a foundation for the unity of white and black business.