What the cry for “transformation” REALLY means to South Africans…

By Professor Phinda Mzwakhe Madi, author Black Economic Empowerment: 20 Years Later – The Baby and the Bathwater

What in the rest of the world would be a fairly innocuous if not somewhat banal word, “transformation”, has become a bogey-word in a democratic South Africa! A dull community meeting, or a sleepy dinner party would suddenly be animated if anyone in there were to shout, or even whisper, “transformation”.

Just one word.

Not a phrase.

Not a sentence.

Just one word: Transformation.

Tempers flare, temperatures rise, room climates change, voices soar, friendships are either strengthened or ruined by just the utterance of one word in South Africa: Transformation.

This word is as highly-charged and emotion-bending as the “apartheid” in South Africa lexicon.

How did we get to this point?

Perhaps it’s the opportune moment to look at traditional definitions of this word.

The Oxford Dictionary defines transformation, in a fairly dull and uneventful tone, as: A marked change in nature, form or appearance.

I would argue that this is probably how the rest of the world defines transformation. Which is probably why the rest of the world is bemused at how South Africans work themselves into a frenzy over it.

But in South Africa, sparks fly at the mere mention of “transformation”.

In my recently published book, ‘Black Economic Empowerment 20 years later, the Baby and the Bathwater”, there is a section dedicated to the nuances and the context of this word. This is what I say:

Broadly speaking, in post-1994 South Africa the rather innocuous-sounding word, transformation, has been acquiring harsher and (some would say) more sinister connotations. I would wager that if I were to stand in the middle of Times Square in New York and shout: “We want transformation”, passers-by would look at me with a smirk on their faces and conclude I am in need of psychiatric help. Their attitude would either be that of mild amusement or muted sympathy. However, if I were to stand in Paul Kruger Square in Pretoria and shout the same phrase, the reaction would be entirely different. The word is not seen as entirely benign in South Africa. It will most likely either elicit shouts of: “Hear hear!”; or some may shout profanities at me or become aggressive. For South Africans, this is indeed a loaded-term.

Exclusive of its benign global understandings, since the dawn of democracy in South Africa ‘”transformation” has, broadly-speaking, acquired the following four connotations, largely dependent on whether one has left-wing (supposedly black) or right-wing (supposedly white) leanings:

  1. Replace whites with blacks in institutions, organisations or sports teams;
  2. Replace competency and operational-efficiency with mismanagement and corruption
  3. Ensure all institutions in the country, be they in the public or private sector, are representative of the demographics of the country;
  4. Remove racial enclaves and ensure that we are a truly integrated rainbow nation, as envisaged by Mandela and other post-racial visionaries

Without being pulled into broad racial generalisation (a favorite pastime of South Africans dare I say!), I would argue that whilst transformation is regarded as a positive cry by many black people in the country, it tends to have the opposite effect amongst white citizens. Many white South Africans generally regard it as apartheid in reverse, a sophisticated sugar-coated form of revenge by blacks. Whilst amongst blacks it is regarded as a cry for redress, amongst whites it is regarded as a call to settle scores: A sophisticated form of taking from the haves and giving, using all sorts of underhanded methods, to the have-nots.

Now my plea to South Africans would be: Let us all take a deep breath and calm down.

And let us cast our minds back to what was the promise of the new South Africa when it dawned in 1994.

In my view, the essence of the new South Africa, as ushered in by visionaries like Nelson Mandela, was encapsulated in the preamble to the Freedom Charter, the guiding document of the anti-apartheid movement crafted in the 50s. The Freedom Charter declares:

South Africa belongs to ALL WHO LIVE IN IT, BLACK AND WHITE.

This was a fundamental declaration – it envisaged a South Africa where people of all races living here will feel at home, with access to all that the country has to offer, from its beautiful beaches, its learning institutions, its highways and byways… Everything that the country had to offer.

I would dare to say that this declaration was as fundamental and powerful as the declaration in the US that says: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all human beings are created equal.


Drawing on the American experience, I would say this US Declaration was at the heart of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s. A section of Americans, black people, wanted this declaration to spring from paper into everyday life in America. There was a section of America that, despite this noble declaration, in their day to day lives, were being met by all sorts of obstacles and barriers that denied their equality as human beings, despite this noble declaration. All sorts of signals and subliminal messages were saying to them: This country does not regard you as being a fully-fledged human being, that is why our various institutions do not treat you as an equal. It was this reality that triggered the mass movement we grew to know as the civil rights movement. The eventual passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson was an acknowledgment of the fact that black citizens in the US, despite all the noble declarations on paper, were not being treated in line with this ‘self-evident truth’ that they are equal to other citizens of the US. In other words, the noble declarations on paper had to be ‘transformed’ into reality for ordinary black Americans. (There comes this word again – transformation!)

And that is where I want to take this debate on transformation in South Africa. The reality for many South Africans of colour is that, despite the declaration that ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it – black and white’, by and large the reality just paints an opposite picture.

Many black South Africans, 20 years into democracy, still feel excluded and almost alien in the land of their forebears.

They look around at what the country has to offer – from its beautiful beaches, its learning institutions, its highways and byways… Everything that the country has to offer, and they see very few of their own ilk. Whilst there have been a few people of colour who have taken their rightful place in many aspects of South African society, they remain a painful minority.

Generally speaking, the South Africa of today still looks and feels, by and large, as the South Africa of the 80s.

Yes, the risk of a race war has been almost entirely eliminated, thanks to visionaries like De Klerk and Mandela, but the day-to-day grind of living as an average black person in South Africa still persists as it did in pre-1994 South Africa.

So when people of colour shout: “Transformation!”, essentially what they mean is: “Please let us also feel that South Africa belongs to us too”.

When we look at the country’s soccer team… Its rugby team… Its cricket team… Let us feel that these national treasures belong to us too. When we look at the skyscrapers… The executives running the corporations inside… The passengers in airplanes… The traders on the stock exchange floors, indeed, the companies listed there, let us feel that all of that belongs to us too.

Let us transform noble declarations on paper to realities on the ground.

Therefore, in a way, the cry for transformation in South Africa is a civil rights cry, like the one heard in the 60s across America. It is a cry to transform noble declarations on the country’s founding documents, into day-to-day reality, for all South Africans, not just a few.

Phinda Madi is a businessman, director of companies, Professor Emeritus at Rhodes University and an author of four management books. He is a founding member of the SA Black Economic Empowerment Commission and is a director of several companies, including The Spar Group, The Nampak Group, Illovo Sugar, Sovereign Foods Limited and The Automobile Association of South Africa, to mention a few.

To learn more about his latest book: Black Economic Empowerment: 20 Years Later – The Baby and the Bathwaterclick here. This provocative new book features conversations with prominent entrepreneurs, business people and thought leaders, such as:

Herman Mashaba; Peter Vundla; Richard Maponya; Gaby Magomola; Thami Mazwai; Leon Louw; Joe Hlongwane; Vusi Thembekwayo; Sandile Zungu; Koko Khumalo; Mandla Malinga; Themba Dlamini; Lawrence Mavundla; Khanyi Kweyama.

Learn more about: Black Economic Empowerment: 20 Years Later – The Baby and the Bathwater



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