THE BLOG

Dear Whitey...

No, not you, Mighty Whitey. Whitey Basson. South Africa’s über retailer and Shoprite boss who steps down in December after a stellar reign.  

05/12/2016 12:00 SAST | Updated 05/12/2016 12:52 SAST
Martin Rhodes/Getty Images

James Wellwood "Whitey" Basson is the king of low prices beloved of consumers in South Africa who this year helped Shoprite ring up its one-billionth transaction. That's a helluva lot of baked beans and custard and other items that price conscious consumers flock to Shoprite to buy.

This year Basson's boss, Christo Wiese, gave him a R100 million rand pay cheque to say thank you for 47 years of service.

Black people and black women in general have driven the success of Shoprite here and in the rest of Africa.

The bonus news popped just as numbers came out showing that South African CEO's have the highest pay gap with their workers and it came in a year when the economy flirted outrageously with recession and an investment ratings downgrade.

And so the eye-popping number caused some investor consternation. As a journalist, I have been a long time fan of Basson. His straight-shooting and earthy style is a delight in a corporate sector that can be plummy and cliquish. Also, I won a Shoprite-Checkers woman of the year award in 2004 and the occasion was big in our family because, well, it was Shoprite and I come from Checkers low-price country, so we know the brand well.

Basson has accomplished the undeniable feat of selling champagne to Nigerians. This is equivalent to a Ukrainian businessman selling vodka to Russians.

Whereas many South African companies have burnt their fingers in Nigeria's razor sharp market, Shoprite's worked. It may not always be well loved across the continent, but Shoprite International is successful. It operates in 10 countries including the DRC, which is all kinds of amazing given that the rich central African giant is a hot mess of wars and conflicts.

But it's all white no black.

Black people and black women in general have driven the success of Shoprite here and in the rest of Africa. You only have to go into a store to see its core market snaking in queues to get to ringing tills.

Yet, Shoprite has one black woman on its board. One. Anna Mokgokong, who is a formidable woman but she is the only woman. Shoprite has three black men on its board – two of whom are black like me (coloured or Indian).

The rest, numbering 13, are all white Afrikaans men (if a surname is an indicator).

The brilliant Shoprite, which crossed borders and boundaries so effortlessly, has failed to make the mental leap of seeing competence and talent in the other. This is a pattern across big business in South Africa where top leaders fail to reach across to black South Africa to find tomorrow's Whitey's.

Basson will hand over the Shoprite reigns to Pieter Engelbrecht who sounds really smart but he is a prototype cut of the same colour and class. In other words, he's a Whitey. There are wonderful exceptions but generally in corporate South Africa, when the time comes to hand over the baton, business barons choose to remake power in their own image.

Shoprite prides itself on being a retailer of world-class quality, but best global practice is to have at least 30% women on a board. Best board practice is that the complement of the board and management should look like the country it does business in. I don't see South Africa on Shoprite's board.

I can't see the exact numbers in its latest annual report but it looks like the pattern of largely white leadership at board and top management level is replicated further down. In it latest annual report, Shoprite scores 3.34 out of 10 for black and female managers, a fail. The numbers of black people and women as a total of staff complement is higher but it would be because South Africa is a largely black country with more women than men. Shoprite is now South Africa's largest private sector employer, making it a pacesetter.

But its pace on equity is dismal in its rest of Africa operations and in South Africa. Shoprite's core market of black South Africans is one it understands and has cultivated closely to make billions for shareholders, including for chairman Christo Wiese. Imagine the revolutionary potential of turning that market into genuine stakeholders through profit sharing and shares. This would narrow the pay gap and if done at scale can begin to reduce inequality.

And what an enormous jolt to aspiration for its staff it would be if they saw brilliant black retailers on the board and in senior management to show that you too can one day be a Whitey.