The corporate plateau of black professionals

The corporate plateau of black professionals…

15 FEBRUARY 2021

Over 14 years ago, a letter written by a young black intern at a prominent bank gained national attention. The substance of the letter, was a reflection on the practices in corporate South Africa that result in different treatment for employees based on the colour of their skin. The author – Bonga Bangani – was an accomplished graduate who had been accepted into one of the more demanding graduate programmes in the banking sector. His experiences within the workplace, reflected longstanding frustrations shared by many black professionals. In framing work practices across the prism of ‘culture’, corporate spaces can alienate and exclude those who do not match the culture fit. As workspaces become fluid centres of engagement that lead to social interactions, the cultural misfits, gradually form part of a parallel workforce who fail to merit invitations to golf days where the intersection between work colleagues and social interactions are to be found. Whilst such intersections are common workplace practices, Bangani’s experience was of an organisation which provided different levels of workplace support and acknowledgment between employees of different races.
As young as he was back then, Bangani had the presence of mind to imagine the long-run effects of this disparity in treatment. As the intern who was not given the mentorship, support and recognition provided to his fellow intern – who happened to be white – Bangani’s prospects of keeping on par with his peer were incrementally and gradually compromised. Over time, as both interns grow and develop within an entity, the effects of the support provided – or not provided – have long-lasting consequences. When Bangani spoke out against the subliminal discrimination he was experiencing, it emboldened a generation of young black professionals to reflect on their own experiences and professional journeys.

The Bangani case study offered relevant insights into the corporate landscape in South Africa. For many corporates, the workforce balance at the entry levels is reflective of the national demographics. Whether this is intentional or accidental differs across organisations. The reality is that for as long as the feeding systems into workplaces – universities for example – mirror the national demographics, it is inevitable that entry-level corporate workforces will replicate the national demographics.

The unresolved problem however, relates to how the demographic profile, gradually changes as one moves up the employment value chain. A recent study by the Commission for Employment Equity points out that of the economically active population (EAP), whites comprise only 9% of the economically active population yet hold 66% of top management positions. At the same time, whilst black Africans make up 79% of the EAP, it is revealed only 15% of top management positions are held by black Africans, with coloured and Indian people holding 6% and 10% respectively. These figures are an indication that top management appointments in South Africa do not reflect the demographics of our country and the question of what happens to black employees as the move up the ladder is a critical national matter. The anecdotal view is that there exists at level at which the plight of black professionals plateaus and leads to the heavy demographic imbalances we see at senior levels. The reasons for this plateau, are a permanent source of concern for ABSIP and should be for the country at large.

In the rare instances where black professionals – and black women in particular – conquer the plateau and break through the gender ceiling, it is as notable as it is momentous. The appointment of Basani Maluleke as the CEO of African Bank in 2018, represented a rare twin assault on the race and gender ceilings. By the time Thabo Dloti joined the board as chairman, African Bank had the rare combination of a black female CEO and a black chairperson leading a frontline financial institution. Such a turn of events, was important for African Bank and the sector at large. In ABSIP’s view, it reflected a continuation of the bank’s longstanding support for transformation through its employment practices and business offerings that fostered financial inclusion for most unbanked South Africans. Over time, the results of the bank indicated an impressive pathway to success for an institution that just 5 years earlier, had been put into curatorship.

The recent developments at the bank that led to the resignation of Basani Maluleke as the CEO, are naturally a cause of concern for ABSIP and the sector at large. Coming in the same month as the resignation of Linda Mateza as the Principal Officer of the Eskom Pension and Provident Fund, the resignation left a significant vacuum in representation at the senior leadership levels in the sector. The mechanics of Basani Maluleke’s exit on the eve of the announcement of the bank’s annual results, resulted in speculation dominating the narrative. At the heart of it, was the abrupt nature of the resignation in a sector that is known for coordinated leadership transitions. In seeking to establish the circumstances underpinning these developments, ABSIP undertook to engaging with the board of African Bank. At the heart of our deliberations was whether the departure of Basani Maluleke represented a systemic issue within the leadership of the bank at large. This was influenced by the fact that over the past 12 months, 7 of the 12 directors have left the bank. In addition, 3 of the 4 black women that served on the board of African bank in the past year; have left. More troublingly, the 3 replacements that have been added to the board in the past 12 months, have all been white men. On the question of optics alone, such developments raise red flags for ABSIP.

And on a substantive level, the question of whether African Bank provides requisite support for black professionals in its senior leadership circle are unavoidable. The nature of such senior positions, is that black professionals are only able to thrive if a conducive and supportive ecosystem is cultivated. Such a responsibility rests with the board primarily and the broader stakeholder base. When unexplained exits materialise in such a short period of time with little explanation, our view is that the leadership of the bank at large owes South Africans a proper explanation. For African Bank – being an entity owned in part by the South African Reserve Bank, the Public Investment Commission and a consortium of banks, its position as a public interest entity is clear. By extension, its leadership transitions are a matter of public interest. That on its own puts on obligation on the board to be far more detailed in engaging with the public on matters of leadership transition. African Bank’s failure to do this is a setback for transformation and for black women in particular whose struggle to be given the type of respect and institutional support offered to white male executives for example; remains the unresolved conundrum in corporate South Africa. As African Bank embarks on a search for its next leader, ABSIP will keep a keen eye on the process and the developments in that regard. Regrettably however, until another Basani and another Linda Mateza are given a chance to showcase their skills many more young black children and many more emerging black professionals will believe that the professional plateau reflected in the Commission of Employment Equity report, is an accepted state of affairs rather than an affront to the nation at large.

Polo Leteka Radebe
For and on behalf of ABSIP