The white boys' club

"No economy can grow by excluding any part of its people, and an economy that is not growing cannot integrate all of its citizens in a meaningful way" - from South Africa's black economic empowerment strategy document.
Mandy de Waal
By Mandy de Waal, ITWeb contributor
Johannesburg, 06 Jun 2008

Story: At the end of May I started writing about new media for ITWeb and thought my first story should be an overview of South Africa's new media industry. Given the rapid proliferation of new media consultants, digital agencies and social networking specialists, it seemed a fair enough story.

What I did was to single out, in terms of traditional and new media profile, who was getting the lion's share of coverage and attention. Who was deemed the 'new media elite'. A who's who of Web 2.0 working in South Africa. I wanted to ask the experts who they would rate as the best consultants in the industry. An experts' list of experts if you will. As I started writing and interviewing for the story something became evident. The most prominent business owners, players or companies in the industry are predominantly white. For the most part the experts they preferred to pick are white. To make my list more representative I picked up the phone and started calling people on my list asking them about empowerment in the industry. I wanted them to refer me people who ran a black owned and managed agencies. Or empowered companies. These are the responses I got:

* "Sorry Mandy, this is a white boy's game. That's just the way it is."

* "I don't like the situation, but that's how it is."

* "Young white males have the best aptitude for this industry. Others don't. There are some women on the periphery, but like blacks they don't have aptitude the hard core tech stuff."

In an effort to try and make the story more representative I found three industry players of 'colour' and asked them to participate. One owned a large, empowered digital agency and was too busy. The other two said they would respond but never got back to me.

At that point I was convinced that race was an issue in the story. It made me realise that for as long as I have been involved with the Internet, consultants and companies who serviced marketers and businesses interested in Web services have been predominantly white. That little had changed in the industry over the past ten years.

As far as I am aware, KrazyBoyz is the only large agency that is black owned, managed and fully empowered.

Zibusiso Mkhwanazi, KrazyBoyz

I first fell in love with the Internet in 1998 when I ran the Cape Town office of the global high technology communications company Text 100. Apart from working with Microsoft, Motorola, and BT (British Telecom) we helped launch M-Web and I was also involved with marketing a little known start up called Mosaic Software that went on to become a global self-service banking and payment processing phenomenon, and was eventually acquired by S1 Corporation (Nasdaq: SONE) in 2004 for $37m. After leaving Text 100 I worked with a number of internet start ups, and consulted to ABSA on their internet banking initiatives before founding Brand & Reputations consultancy, Idea Engineers. There I handled marketing for Acceleration (a global e-marketing success story); online self-service experts Consology, Nashua Mobile and global networking giant Verizon alongside some retail, leisure and financial brands.

During the past ten years I have worked with digital design agencies, Web consultants, search agencies, new media marketing companies, Web research companies as well as venture capitalists with an interest in technology and new media. In the early days empowerment in the Web industry was always the exception to the rule, and I heard new media CEOs say in board rooms that they would not bother with empowerment because they trade in a scarce resource. Returning to write about the industry as a journalist I am convinced that not much has changed. There are excellent black independents and one or two empowered agencies, but the lion's share of the work and subsequently the capital, skills and intellectual property is still tightly held by what is essentially a white boys, club.

This was confirmed when I chatted to Zibusiso Mkhwanazi, the 24-year old former founder of who led the BEE merger that recreated KrazyBoyz as one of the country's leading empowered digital agencies, and possibly the only sizeable black owned and run agency in the South African new media industry. The move saw Mkhwanzi take top honours at the BBQ Awards with the "BBQ Young Business Achiever Award" presented to him by ANC Treasurer General and businessman Mathews Phosa.

Says Mkhawanzi:

"As far as I am aware, KrazyBoyz is the only large agency that is black owned, managed and fully empowered.

We are in a small industry that hasn't grown significantly. There are only a few niche players. I would say there are no more than 30 players you can rely on. The rest are up and coming. Because of the small pool, the client hasn't got a lot of talent to choose from. Empowerment is a competitive advantage but there is simply not enough pressure for other players to become empowered.

To my mind the players need to make an effort to go and find good talent at universities, and start mentorship programmes and other initiatives that will promote empowerment in the new media industry. They need to start nurturing tomorrow's bright stars by speaking at, and interacting in schools, universities and colleges. They need to empower and grow their own employees.

At the end of the day it is a matter of finding the talent. They are not trying hard enough. Empowerment is a matter of will. They simply don't have the will."

With top talent heading off to Silicon Valley or off shore, I was disappointed with the reaction to the article which was largely characterised by ego, efforts to discredit myself or ITWeb, petty in-fighting, and statements that race was not an issue.

Web comments on the story:

* BOYS CLUB MEMBER (Anonymously): "Would someone who is encouraged to work in the IT industry based on his race or gender really add value? The people in my opinion who really add value to the IT industry, are the ones that have a passion for what they do regardless of sex or race. Recognition should be based on achievements, not based on achievements that are based on sex or race."

* KHATHUTSHELO NDOUVHADA: "I don't think that these guys should be forced into making BEE deals."

* EVE DMOCHOWSKA: "Certainly, it *is* a white boys' club, but believe me: there is no one holding a gun to any female or non-white person who would want to be a player in the space."

* WENDY: "Gender and race are incidental."

Extracts from some of the blogs commenting on the story or issue:

* Nic Haralambous: "The immediate feeling that I get is that this is like affirmative action in sports teams - the Springboks to be precise. The situation that rugby players of colour have faced in the past is a lose-lose, if they are chosen they question the reasons for their selection. If they are not chosen then they wonder if it was due to their race. Lose. Lose."

* Ramon Thomas: "Mandy de Waal, a freelance journalist, wrote this article on ITWeb, which I found very offensive. The main reasons I found it distasteful is the most obvious one i.e. it is simply an example of lazy journalism. She interviewed 11 people, all white, who their Web 2.0 dream team is. Maybe if she asked one non-white person she could still have made her point without having to call it a white boys club." Ramon then goes on to offer a list of potential interviewees none of which own, manage or control a South African based new media consulting company of any size. The list offers names of a number of independents, people employed by empowered corporates outside of the new media industry (telecoms & advertising), and people employed by companies who are yet to be empowered or of people who have made it big and left the country. The rest of the blog is an analysis of the racial profile of Tech Leader contributors, with a motivation why Ramon Thomas should be included as a contributor on that forum.

* Mike Stopforth created a poll called: Ramon Thomas Vs. The White Boy's Club to determine whether Ramon Thomas was self aggrandising, or whether empowerment should be effected in the industry. At the time of writing only 7% of Stopforth's readers believed the industry should do something about empowerment. 17% didn't give a damn.

My opinion is that these blogs add little, if any, value to the real issues of empowerment in the industry. Blogs worthwhile reading and that add to the debate are:

* Ismail Dhorat's Buzz 2.0

* Nur Ahmad Furlong's Tech Leader piece "Oh what racially tangled webs we weave"

* Paul Jacobson's "Colour me fascist"

The bottom line?

Business is a matter of supply and demand. New media skills are in short supply and great demand. Right now the white boys hold the lion's share of the supply. The way I see it, they have little interest or incentive to let go and empower others to share in the wealth, skills or technology in the new media industry.

But please tell me I'm wrong. Show me:

* What BEE deals are currently being brokered;

* Who is offering equity to staff, communities or other previously disadvantaged groups;

* Who is recruiting and training new talent from previously disadvantaged groups;

* Who is involved in human resource or skills programmes to address the issue;

* What mentoring programmes or processes are in place;

* How new media skills and technologies are being championed in communities to address the diversity issue;

* How the industry is constructively or individually taking action to deal with this issue.


Mandy de Waal is a freelance journalist, columnist and writer for hire. A former broadcast journalist, de Waal has worked as a brand consultant and helped launch M-Web, Mosaic Software and She's worked with Microsoft, Motorola, British Telecom, Verizon, Consology and Nashua Mobile. She writes about branding, technology, new media and whatever else grabs her fancy for a number business titles including this new column for ITWeb.
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