Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao targeted for BEE scheme.

South Africa's black economic empowerment policy has been operating, if a little feebly, since the end of apartheid in 1994. Just last week however, a group of disgruntled Afrikaners launched a campaign to boycott the country's biggest cellular network, and its owners, Vodafone and Telkom, for selling just 3.44% of its shares to non-white buyers only.

The investment scheme, called YebuYetho, was launched by Vodacom in October 2008. Flagged as one of South Africa's largest broad-based black economic empowerment (BEE) transactions, its stated purpose was "to provide the Black Public [which includes all non-Caucasian ethnicities] with an opportunity to participate in the ownership of Vodacom SA". The initiative, along with shares bought elsewhere, raised the company's percentage of black-owned shares from 1.9% in 2007 to 6.97% in 2009.

A year later, a viral campaign calling for the boycott of the three companies has emerged on the Web. A Facebook group, a blog, and an email campaign have been set up by one John Kerlen (who is incidentally, based in the United Kingdom and a representative of South Africa's Cape Independence Party).

Along with a dozen supporters, Kerlen is asking others to send a proposed email to Vodafone Chief Executive Vittorio Colao (seen above in the wanted poster), who he describes as "the disgusting man that sits back and allows his company to use racist policies." The email reads "Pretty disgusting isn't it? We are campaigning for all decent like-minded people across the world to boycott Vodafone, Vodacom and Telkom products".

“Campaigns like this boycott will only reverse peace efforts”

Victor Macklenin is a business executive from Cape Town.

Given that the majority of Vodacom's shares are currently white-owned (only 2.31% are directly black-owned, or BEE, the other 4% are in pensions, and 35% is state owned, leaving direct white ownership at around 60%), this initiative is hardly weird. What doesn't sound right is that people are complaining that a white company, with majority white shareholders, and a white CEO, is issuing a racist product by inviting black people to get involved!

In fact, the said product raises a lot of questions about who presently owns the majority of shares on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange; whites. [Black share-ownership has been estimated at 23% but this figure has been disputed because it includes pensions]. South Africa is a rainbow nation - an extension of a reconciled society that is meant to thrive and coexist without returning to issues of apartheid and inequality.

Campaigns like this ‘boycott' will only reverse peace efforts. Vodacom's offer is a mere encouragement to the formerly disadvantaged groups - not a guarantee that they will either own Vodacom or get shares at a discounted price. Besides, Vodacom is a listed company and anyone can go ahead and purchase shares with them outside this specified quota."

“Had South Africa relied purely on the market, there would be no black business people today”

Steven Friedman is a political scientist and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and University of Johannesburg, specialised in post-apartheid reform.

While there is, appropriately, a debate about whether BEE is being applied appropriately, the claim that it is racist, in my view, is generally made by people who did not suffer under apartheid or are not familiar with its effects.

BEE is essentially an affirmative action policy based on the assumption that the disadvantages which black people suffer as a result of apartheid cannot be rectified simply by allowing everyone to compete in an open market. Since whites owned all the major businesses and had most of the skills and the money because of apartheid, had South Africa relied purely on the market, there would be no black business people today.

Whites were taught under apartheid that they were superior and most whites therefore find it difficult to believe that any black person could be good at business (or at many professions). The only way to correct this is to introduce concrete programmes encouraging black opportunities in business (as well as other areas of life)."

The prospectus that caused the outrage

The full prospectus is available here.