Melo Magolego
Melo Magolego

The real problem with incompetent black graduates

For many, the mercurial politics of corporate South Africa are punctuated by awkwardly silent, contrived spaces of uncomfortable reflection – spaces known as office elevators. Every so often the silence is broken by wide-eyed faces brimming with the heat of new degrees. Ha! It must be February and the new crop for the graduate programme has just arrived. It is a diverse bunch, each chosen for both their potential for future success and performance in their courses of tertiary study. Fast-forward four years and one notices that there is a performance gulf between members of the same cohort. One cannot help but notice how the black graduates are less competent in their ability to execute on the vision of the corporate. Yes, the black graduates in my observation are less competent.

Incompetence. We are very afraid of that word. My use of the word competence is not referring to some innate, essentialist ability to do a particular task. That particular usage is largely confined to the comical and discredited arguments of Eugenicists. I am neither interested in those arguments nor any clown entertaining them. My use of competence refers to having acquired a set of skills, knowledge and exposure such that when you perform a task you are able to frame it, understand it, socialise it and produce results.

In knowledge-intensive business environments (unlike assembly-line type factories), there is a lot of know-how that a person must learn from one’s colleagues in order to be competent. In as much as one may have a university degree and also read industry publications, there is a lot that depends on having actual hands-on experience and having someone guiding you through potential potholes. Yes there are those few special individuals who are able to do this without help or even do it in an environment with people hostile to giving them exposure. However, for the majority, if not almost all, this is not possible. Thus in these knowledge-intensive corporates the question becomes: why do the black grads lag behind? Are they not being given support and are being expected to figure it all out by themselves? Is it a case of black grads having to prove that they are clever before they are given guidance?

The false argument into which many people on transformation committees get trapped is to argue against the incompetence of black graduates. That is, argue that black grads are as competent. This is a losing argument because one can pick any set of metrics used to measure success within the company and one would, a lot of the time, find black grads to be wanting. The more enlightened argument is to circumvent the trap and argue that since these grads all come in with the same amount of knowledge, how is it that some are able to acquire more know-how than others? More so, why does this acquisition have such a racial profile? This line of argument is more fruitful because it leads to a discussion of how measures can be put in place to help blacks also advance. This is in contrast to the argument disputing incompetence which will likely lead to a lot of heat and latent animosity. There are those denied opportunity even though they are highly competent but that’s another article.

It is truly embarrassing that after 14 years of graduate programmes that there can be large corporates that lack even a single black face in revenue generating middle management – let’s not even talk about revenue generating executive management. For many people there’s this belief that in 1994 some magical switch was flipped and equal opportunity abounded. The vestiges of the apartheid hegemony exist till today. That hegemony continues to perpetuate itself by monopolising access, exposure and power. For some of the individuals who perpetuate the hegemony, the question of transformation is not one of ethics but rather a political one. Hence transformation becomes deformed by the pressures of the football of power politics and the need to be in charge. That is to say, if remaining in power means denying others opportunity then regardless of our country’s history one will completely shut others out.

Hermann Giliomee in The Last Afrikaner Leaders, argues that the defining question of Afrikaner intellectuals in the 1930s was the “poor Afrikaner” problem. He says that when Apartheid was instituted in 1948, the British afforded the Afrikaner what is termed as “benign neglect”. This was a de facto policy of not frustrating the Afrikaners’ ability to deal with the problem of transformation. For me the question I ask myself is, to what degree is this “benign neglect” being afforded those seeking opportunity in uplifting themselves today. Today this “benign neglect” at worst would be, not willfully blocking access and at best facilitating the progress of blacks.

The politics of exclusion being practised today have a very narrow and myopic outlook. A lot of the people in the ranks of those perpetuating apartheid hegemonies are in the middle class. The proportion of black people in the middle class in South Africa pales in comparison to that proportion of white people. There is no doubt that the middle class as an electoral constituency needs black people. So why would one not want to co-opt as many black people into the middle class as possible, so as to create a long term alignment of concerns and aspirations? Jonathan Jansen writes: “The major beneficiary of a first-generation university student who completes a degree is the family unit”

In other words, for each black student that is allowed to succeed, there is a potential four to 10 people who could potentially be elevated to having middle class concerns and aspirations. As a people we should strive to broaden the scope of affairs that influence our private politics. We should locate our private politics within the context of a country grappling with transformation.

Twitter: @melomagolego

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    • bernpm

      @Melo: “The false argument into which many people on transformation committees get trapped is to argue against the incompetence of black graduates. ”

      In my years as consultant in various business environments I did run into discussions about “transformation”. Many of those discussions were fruitless and meaningless.

      I used to interrupt these discussions with the question: “Can anyone tell me “what” we are trying to transform and from “what” into “what”??
      Some agreed and started to focus on the problem and a solution.
      Others preferred to discuss the holy “transformation” without focusing solely as a passing time undertaking. The latter almost never got anywhere towards an implementation plan with agreed and valid criteria.

    • Minus

      I fully agree with this. Most corporates do not support black professionals mainly because the informal support networks and mentors that others have overlook them. They are often not put on key assignments or important roles. This definitely must change.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Melo. These competent blacks should be looking to start their own business instead of depending on whites to give them a job. The blacks in SA make up eighty plus percent of the population, and they should be looking to start their own thing. You write like the blacks in SA are a minority and depends on the white to treat them in a fair manner. I was just reading about a black American name Tyler Perry, and he was sleeping in his car with no place to live. He was able to start his own movie company, and he is making more money than anybody in Hollywood. When he was trying to get started, mainstream America overlooked him, and he is a winner, everyone wants to talk to him. Guess what? Tyler Perry doesn’t have a college, but he had an idea and pursued it.

    • Call for Honesty

      In conversation with some black students I suggested that affirmative action should benefit them. Their response was negative. They had come from poor families with no contacts in government or politics. If judged on merit against certain black students with all the right contacts they would have easily outperformed them because of their determination and hard work. Sadly the whole system discriminated against them and favoured black students from rich or connected families. The very students that should be held up as examples and rewarded on merit are often for political reasons being discriminated against by their the black leaders in politics and business.

    • lawrenceab

      This is very well observed. I live in another country blighted by poor race relations – Malaysia. The problems are not so glaring as SA’s because a rich national resource base and a generation of affirmative action for the Malays has has a leavening effect – but to a certain limit only: the underperformance of Malays is irrefutable and one of the reasons is the same I believe as in SA. They don’t demand better. They have become vassalised – inféodés – to a party that takes them for granted.

      Whatever the faults of the whites, and they are many and they include racial arrogance, I know – they are demanding people! This is essential. And it has its positive consequences in the workplace. If black Africans will start to DEMAND better performance, less corruption, more attentiveness to constituents, they will raise not only their own game, they will get more respect. Why do you put up with Zuma for example?? Demand better!

      I know, I acknowledge, the deck is stacked against you. But the solution is in your hands.

    • Cam Cameron

      There is no need to actively recruit people to join the middle class. It’s a natural aspirational goal, just as how a bean planted in damp soil doesn’t need advice in getting its stem and leaves out into the sunlight.

      If you can’t help yourself, you simply don’t deserve to advance to middle-class status. You’re one of those who see a glass as half-empty rather than half-full. A fault-finder rather than an opportunity-grabber.

    • Todd Van Der Kaamp

      Great article Melo. I’m not overly familiar with African politics today but what you’ve written about sounds very similar to the situation endured by the aboriginal population here in Canada. The world needs to evolve and become truly more inclusive.

    • alexxzarr

      Melo – great article, thanks.
      My sense is that while the behaviour “looks racial” and its object happens to be racist – this is an “accident”. People, all people, look to protect their position, their interests (even if narrow and short-term). The result is that whiteys – in the case of current SA – seek to protect their personal interest, which are jobs, an income, a possible promotion, etc. In the past one found the same corporate dynamic between english and afrikaners, depending on the company, or those with a certain background versus others, or the chartered accountants versus the engineers…
      A powerful antidote to this human instinct is to reduce the “threat” of loss by some, by increasing the quantum of opportunity. That magical growth in economic activity that will increase the size of opportunity so that we do not have a zero-sum game.
      While the game is zero-sum, people close ranks, protect what they have, even if it may be short-sighted. But who will be the first to say, here is my job, my income, my home, my car, my hope?
      I don’t think it is a black/white dynamic, but that also doe snot solve our challenge…

    • Marna

      I am in a corporate environment and can say that it is definitely changing. They may be incompetent when they walk in but I found that there is a new drive in some of them to really learn and trying their best to catch up. I admire that. I think it is necessary for them to realize that you have to start at the bottom and work your way up. That it is at the bottom that you learn the skills necessary to manage at the top.

    • Impedimenta

      It was good to read this article – new insight is always useful.

      In some cases, in my experience, young black and white graduates are not comfortable with the kind of mentoring needed to impart job-specific skills. They don’t ask questions, perhaps not wanting to seem unskilled? Those who are open to mentoring grasp the necessary skills quickly.

    • http://Chemanviews Mandla

      Well argued bhuti Melo.

      One have read with interest all the comments to this piece. All of them seem to be having a common point of convergence and that is Blacks should begin to demand what’s best for them. We might all understand that such demands should begin from within.
      Blacks in general and particularly black grads should begin or continue to painfully push themselves beyond limits. This must be done simultaneously with persuading those who might stand on their (black grads) way to excellence, to change their attitudes.

      I have seen good and hard-working South Africans working together to achieve goals. Company goals will always be achieved with ease when they mean the same benefit to all employees. The opposite is true when those goals mean more rewards for one colour-skin and lesser rewards for the other.

      This is a call for all of us to work together beyond such useless things as colour of our skin! May we all heed this call!

    • Rory Short

      We have got to get our foundational principles in order before we can make any meaningful advances. Unfortunately the foundational principles upon which the ANC has operated since 1994 are flawed. These were, and still are, that race is a defining factor in SA and it needs to be addressed through legislation. What the ANC and many other people in SA do not realise is that race remains a defining factor in SA because it is thought that race based legislation can fix the distortions in our society that centuries of racism has produced. It is like somebody who keeps picking at a scab that they have whilst at the same time expecting it to heal. To me the bottom line for any legislation aimed at helping people with their problems should be the personhood of citizens. Their race or any other background factor is of secondary importance and should not play any role in legislation aimed at helping them. These secondary factors are only relvant in as much they may help in working out possible solutions to a particular person’s problems. To include race in any such legislation immediately changes the focus of the legislation away from the primary factor, the personhood of the citizen, to a secondary factor namely race. Are we surprised that race is still playing as prominent a role as ever in SA?

    • Gary Smith

      Your article got me going Melo, and then it seemed to run out of steam! I’d like to read more from you on this subject. I’m convinced that, apart from acknowledging that disparity exists – and on racial lines – we should not allow ‘race’ to be a red herring. The answers are there but trying to find them ‘racially’ is just like looking for wood in the trees.

    • Enock

      In my workplace Black graduates are very much competent and more qualified than their white colleagues even though they had poor backgrounds but managed to overcome all those obtacles since the majority of them graduated with Masters degrees and PhDs from the so-caleed historially white universities.So your observations are short sighted , ignorant and full racism.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Let me try this again.
      Why is South Africa the only country on the continent where being given work advice is considered ‘condescending’? Yes, you went through university but you do NOT know how to do the job. Ask and put up with the boring stories. That is how our generation learned how to do the job. People love to talk about what they know. Make use of that. True knowledge is knowing that you don’t know much and that there is much to learn.

    • Francesca Cristina

      Well Argued article and very balanced but I would like to put this to you. When most young graduates start out in the business world they have no experience just theory. However they observe, copy others in slightly higher positions or people who have been there longer and who know the ropes. If one makes a mistake or doesn’t understand something, the more experienced in the group will either be friendly and help or in most cases be contemptuous of one’s lack of skills but still pass on knowledge. But as the NEWIE one takes it and probably go out on Friday night for a drink With the office know it all. White people are now scared of razzing or hazing newies who are mostly black on a team because they might be called “racist”. On the other hand the black graduates are afraid of either asking or taking criticism because they are defensive possibly thinking the white person is going to be judgemental. What do others think?/

    • Wondering…

      A degree without common sense is worthless.

    • InSearchofaAleader


      Your article is on point- I work for a civil engineering consulting firm and there is definitely a glass ceiling. White graduates and senior staff members are mentored in such a manner that you ask yourself if whether one was appointed for a BEE status.

      The level of responsibility assigned to us is ethically and technically undermining; how are we “blacks” expected to meet the stringent criteria of becoming Professional Engineers. Typical example a black middle manager has been with the firm for more than 10 years; white manager is going for his 3rd year post. grad with the firm?

      How are we expected to excel in a particular trade if we are not given the chance and effective mentoring? next thing you know the same race calls you stupid or barbarians. In my opinion I feel some white people if not majority have fear, they recognize the potential we possess and it eats them alive. I asked my manager the same question if perhaps he and others are afraid that some of us are brilliant and have the potential to become great leaders, his reply was NO. Great leaders are a threat to white supremacy?

      Part time student: M.civil eng.

    • TheParadox

      A well written masterpiece and straight to the point. I appreciate most if not all the comments on this blog. Am not really saying anything new but re-iterate what has already been said.

      Work hard, most people are rational and they will recognise your diligence. Do not expect sympathy/mercy/kids gloves, the world we live in is extremely competitive so much that any weak link brings the corporate down. Do not stop learning, especially if you did not have the priviledge of executive discusions at the dinner table the time you were growing up. Learn good corporate habits and fit in. Lastly, choose your friends carefully, do not base it on race. Align yourself to people that can mentor you infromally everyday (You learn someting everyday, if you pay attention).

      Don’t complain, there is always a way out. If the door is closed, open it.

      I say this from personal experience.

    • Kat

      I think the biggest problem is a lack of confidence in black graduates, a sad effect of apartheid which the first few generations of new black graduates who are the first in their families to graduate and enter the middle class corporate world. White graduates have an inherent confidence to voice opinions, of how to be assertive etc. because they have been brought up in a middle class environment with father and mothers who are middle class. As black children of black middle class parents grow up and join the ranks they too will have this inherent confidence. Corporate’s should address this without being embarrassed….how to instill confidence in graduates who are pioneers in their communities. Maybe have older retired businessmen come in as mentors to young black graduates. I believe that if black graduates showed confidence they would express ideas, find their voices and the companies would benefit greatly as they would have great employers from different backgrounds and a more integrated South African company. I don’t believe that all of corporate SA is racist on purpose, it is not in their interest…I just think everyone is looking at this in a complicated narrow typically South African way. Have a good mentorship rpgramme for young black graduates and you will see a big difference!

    • Chris911

      @Rory race will remain as a primary redress factor in the work space or any other space for some time to come. We cannot deny that it must happen if otherwise we will be setting ourselves up for disaster. There is just no clever way of getting around this unless we had the architectures of Apartheid/Colonialism in a CODESA of sorts to speak at length and extract solutions to correct the mess-ups. I believe that Race based corrective measures would work if they were genuinely applied and here I am not speaking about nepotism or the cadre deployment prevalent in the current administration. To deny that the reason for Black South Africans failing to make the cut is due to them is far fetched . The article written by Melo is flawed in many ways but still has some truth in it. Fact is job protectionism exists and white companies and white people go to great lengths to ensure that it perpetuates . White graduates still get preferential treatment, better exposure ,better prospects etc. This has been my experience in the past 15 years of my employment. Is it that black people are lazy or stupid or that white people are full of energy and smart, I doubt. This is not about the race tangle of trying to make the other guilty or stupid to prove that whites are elite and blacks are related to monkeys that has been overplayed and has not served anything but ensured greater distance between the two races. We need to look at the facts here and realise that the only way forward for South Africa is about frank open talk

    • Chris911

      This is painting every African with the same brush, a very dangerous stereotype. Skin colour is not the decisive factor but it must be used for redress of the past created imbalances . Your statement lacks maturity at the least it punts stupidity. What does upbringing and family traditions have to do with anything I have met Africans that are committed to their craft/careers and also met whites that are . I have also met Africans that could not care the same as I met whites that are destructive spend more time smoking, politicking and the prominent one taking credit of other people’s work. Does that now give me counsel to deduce that either are lazy or smart or otherwise?

    • ianshaw

      I used to be a consultant with ESKOM and in another blog I described my concrete and undeniable experiences with black graduates.
      I refuse to stoop to your political correctness, but there is not enough space here to reiterate what I observed. Although I did want to help and tried to engage these individuals in project discussions and seminars, I was taken aback by their total disinterestedness and yet an arrogant attitude towards white mentors. Besides, I used to teach at a university for many years and at the end most of my students were black (in an undergraduate class). I was impressed by some truly ambitious ones (women more than men) and I organized extra classes (for which I received no remuneration) because I was gratified when they succeeded. Yet those who refused to work went to the department head to complain about me. I was subsequently warned, that I must be more lenient, that these students are not the kind that was used to. As a result, my contract was not renewed, but in a way I was glad. And I don’t give a hoot if you’d call me a racist.

    • david7

      When you “click” with someone you are more likely to invite them into your “clique”. When a conversation about the Maslow needs hierarchy makes me feel someone is “on the same page” as I am I will listen more closely next time that person talks about something entirely different – say about energy saving – even though somebody else in the group possibly knows more about energy saving. Even “geeks” are hamstrung in translating skills and superior knowledge into corporate advancement if they are not close to the nexus of a given company. There is therefore an almost inescapable informal cronyism in business because people find it difficult to be constant paragons of professionalism and sound judgement.