The Real History and Contemporary Character Of Black Economic Empowerment (Part 1)

By Dale T. McKinley · 11 Jan 2011

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments
Picture: Bangers and Ash
Picture: Bangers and Ash

Editor’s Note: This article is “Part 1” of a two-part series on the nature of black economic empowerment (BEE). “Part 1" here deals with the history of BEE. “Part 2” deals with the more contemporary character of BEE.

Amidst all the usual political propaganda and grandstanding at the ANC’s recent 99th anniversary rally in Polokwane it was none other than Julius Malema who came up with the most honest statement of the day. Defending himself against charges that he and his ANC Youth League cronies were continuing to economically benefit from associated businesses awarded government tenders; he argued that business is intrinsically elitist. As such, Malema claimed, “BEE will never be broad” – and in this rare case, he got it right. 

To understand why though, we first need to have a clear understanding of the core historical context within which ‘black economic empowerment’ (BEE - as directly related to South Africa) was incubated and subsequently pursued. If we go back to the beginning of the 1900s, we can see that the initial impetus for the formation of the ANC  - as an organisational expression of black nationalism - derived from a combined ‘protest’ over the lack of political and economic opportunities of the small (but influential) black petty bourgeoisie. It was this social force which wanted to find a political and organisational means to stem the racialised assault on their own specific class interests – as well, of course, on what they saw as the political and economic well being of Africans in general.

The majority of this new ANC cadre not only brought with them their particular class politics but also a heavy dose of Christian (Calvinist) education and corresponding social mores. This led to a perspective that incorporated a politics of non-violence and of incorporation in which the main priority became one of persuading the 'civilised' British that the educated, propertied, and 'civilised' Africans could be incorporated into the mainstream of South African society. In other words, as applied to their own economic interests, the leadership of the early ANC simply wanted a specific section of the black population to become an integral part of the capitalist system.

From this point on, BEE was framed by this approach and understanding but (to varying extents) was mediated by the macro-nationalist politics of the ANC which provided a sense of collective (predominately racial) and de-classed ‘ownership’ over the emerging struggle against the racialised organisation of South African society. This was best exemplified in an early call by ANC founder P.I. Seme that, “we are one people”. Thus, from a very early stage, the concept of political freedom for all black South Africans was aligned to a nationalist politics that accepted the capitalist class system and thus the specific (and dominant) need for economic empowerment of those class of blacks that could join (and potentially eventually replace) white capitalists as the precursor to wider-scale ‘economic empowerment’ of the black masses.

However, after the rank failure of the early ANC to organise and mobilise the black majority behind its ‘programme’ of incorporation, the next phase in the development of ‘black empowerment’ came in the late 1930s and early 40s when the ANC and the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) joined forces under the ‘people’s front’ strategy. While in theory, the 'people's front' strategy stressed the need to bring together all social forces that might play a positive role in furthering the demands of national liberation, in practice it meant two crucial things: sidelining the black working class as a major force for radical change in favour of 'progressive' white labour, 'liberal' British/international capital and a decidedly narrow black African nationalism; and, identifying the struggle against capitalism (i.e., socialism - working-class politics and mass economic empowerment) as a mostly foreign (white) ideology that was not appropriate to 'African conditions' and thus a general obstacle to the national liberation of the black majority. The affirmation of this approach is best represented by the remarks of Dr. A.B. Xuma (ANC Secretary General) in 1945 when he said, “… it is of less importance to us whether capitalism is smashed or not. It is of greater importance to us that while capitalism exists, we must fight and struggle to get our full share and benefit from the system.”

This conceptual understanding and practical approach to black ‘empowerment’ was then consolidated as the dominant expression of the liberation struggle from the 1960s onwards (codified in the ANC’s 1969 Strategy & Tactics document). Here, the ‘new’ basis for the pursuit of ‘black empowerment’ was set against the theory of 'colonialism of a special type’.

The core of the argument was that apartheid emanated from the era of monopoly capitalism and that South Africa reflected “a combination of the worst features of imperialism and colonialism within a single national frontier” in which black South Africa was a colony of white South Africa. As the African population was seen as having “no acute or antagonistic class divisions at present” (i.e. a seamless identification of all blacks as being part of a common and oppressed ‘class’ of people) it was only logical that the immediate task was to fight for the national liberation of the 'colonised'. As such, this task would be carried out through a 'national democratic revolution' with the multi-class liberation movement (the ANC) acting as the main vehicle, but with the working class constituting the leading revolutionary force within it. Since not all classes had an objective interest in a fundamental (anti-capitalist) economic transformation of a post-apartheid South Africa the working class' leading role would - theoretically - ensure that the struggle could be extended towards a second stage of socialism.

The ‘result’ was that by the time serious mass struggles against the apartheid system took centre stage (in the 1980s), the entire concept of BEE was wrapped up in a hopelessly contradictory ‘liberation’ paradigm. National liberation itself was analytically and practically circumscribed – i.e., the political side of the national liberation struggle had become detached from the economic side (the struggle for social and material liberation). In other words, BEE would, of necessity, have to be practically implemented as part of a deracialised capitalism (after political freedom) in which the logical aim would be the empowerment of an emergent and black capitalist class (bourgeoisie) as a means of overcoming general racial oppression. In turn, this empowerment would then trickle down to the black majority of workers and poor, who would, ostensibly somewhere in the distant future, rise up and overturn the capitalist system (and the newly empowered black capitalists within it).

By the time 1994 rolled round, the mould of any future BEE was set. The primacy of developing a black bourgeoisie as the accumulative vehicle for an extended BEE and the maintenance/enhancement of capitalist relations of production as the macro-developmental framework within which that took place (alongside political ‘freedom’) - was presented as the logical and indeed desired outcome of the liberation struggle itself.  Under the ‘cover’ of the national, multi-class (but in reality predominately black working class) struggle against apartheid, there soon emerged the widespread notion that there was a common – national and class - interest in pursuing such a ‘model’ and outcome. 

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

To receive an email notification when a new SACSIS article is published, please click here.

For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

You can find this page online at

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!


Firoze Manji
7 Mar

Amazing Parallels with the Rest of the Continent

This is an excellent piece from Dale. What is striking for me is how similar this whole process of black empowerment is to the 'Africanisation' policies in the rest of the continent. Reading this article I see amazing parallels with the experiences and limitations of nationalism on the continent. I read it with such a sense of frustration as well because we could see all this developing before our eyes in South Africa with a deep sense of deja vu! Perhaps Dale should consider expanding the lens to include an analysis of the post-independence policies on the continent. But I am sure others like me will hear the resonance of their own experiences.

Respond to this comment