The structural and cultural barriers to entry for black professionals in the energy sector are generally very high, and more so for female black professionals, despite a regulatory regime that is broadly in favour of more black participation in the sector.

Typically, these barriers manifest as convenient excuses to maintain the status quo or resist transformation. The most common excuse is that black professionals lack the qualifications and technical capability to occupy certain positions. The energy-industrial complex constantly laments the small available pool of black talent. This, however, is not matched by the ready lake of available black professionals that have gained considerable experience in corporate South Africa. Besides, energy companies also need to do more to attract, develop and retain black talent.

Another excuse is that of a lack of competence to fill certain positions in energy sector companies. Competence is a function of experience and qualifications combined with professional flair, the latter being very subjective and incredibly hard to measure. It is this subjectivity which is often used to denigrate black professionals. Efforts at transformation will be met with resistance – it should come as no surprise.

These barriers to entry also vacillate according to industry sub-sectors. In young segments of the industry, such as the renewable energy sector, the barriers to entry are acutely high and the work environment for many black professionals remains toxic.

All these coalesce and have given rise to the phenomenon of corporate South Africa only using a small coterie of black executives to serve their agendas because of the perceived pliability of these professionals. This is even the case with board appointments in energy sector companies, where the same individuals are constantly rotated and the status quo effectively remains intact.

Transformation efforts in the sector are also too disjointed; leaving companies to mostly self-regulate. Glossy annual reports give the veneer of transformation across the industry while the reality is vastly different. Transformation efforts need to be rationalized and consolidated. This could be driven by the likes of Black Energy Professionals Association, which has a mandate to advance the interests of black professionals across the board in the energy sector. Such an initiative could be resourced by energy companies themselves against their statutory transformation commitments and supplemented with resources from dedicated institutions such as the Energy and Water Sector Education and Training Authority. In other words, it is high time for a new approach; the current one simply does not go far enough.

The worst barrier is when fellow black professionals are part of the problem by either actively preventing others from advancing in the industry or simply by doing nothing. Pliant black executives need not fear the advancement of fellow black professionals in the energy sector. Apart from the fact that as the sector grows and more black professionals are absorbed, they need to play an active role in pioneering accelerated transformation.

In the final instance, however, black professionals should refuse to adopt the mantra of helpless and hapless victims of a broken society, always pointing the finger at others for their lack of advancement. We need to develop our own agency and not depend on others or the system to always change. This is the most important critical success factor for energy sector transformation, followed by forging a sense of unity. In so doing, as the structural and cultural barriers fall, black professionals will be ready to actively assume the apex role of energy production and governance in their own country.

Source: This article is an opinion piece by Ricardo Hansby. He heads an Economic Development and Enterprise Development Consultancy and previously served as Deputy Director-General for Infrastructure and Economic Development for the Department of Cooperative Governance.