On 17 May 1954 in America, a bustling crowd, made up mostly of black people, had gathered outside the United States Supreme Court building. The tense crowd waited with bated breath to hear the outcome of what was seen as one of the most important court cases in the history of the racially divided country. The case was Brown vs Board of Education. At stake was whether or not state-funded public schools should remain segregated along racial lines. Arguing for segregation was the former presidential candidate John W Davis. Part of his argument included a long-held legal doctrine termed “separate but equal”. According to this principle, racial segregation did not violate the Constitution as long as each race had equal, though separate, access government services and resources.

On the opposite side of the courtroom, arguing against racial segregation in public schools, was Thurgood Marshall. He rubbished the contemptuous idea of “separate but equal” so convincingly that the court overturned it, with the judge stating, “Separate but equal has no place in the Constitution.” With that, racial segregation in American public schools was banned. Thurgood Marshall represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, popularly known as the NAACP.

A few years before, in South Africa, Hendrik Verwoerd had ushered in the system of apartheid with a definition eerily similar to that of “separate but equal”, calling the brutally oppressive philosophy “a policy of good neighbourliness, accepting that there are differences between people”.

When there is poor representation of a group of people, those who are present seem to carry a disproportional duty that offers low margins for error.

What black people in both countries knew was that the idea of parallel systems of governance and economics were a farce and would always disadvantage those who were not represented in the structures of power. The liberation movement in South Africa dismantled the political authority of apartheid and the NAACP in America proved the power that civil associations could wield.

In post-1994 South Africa, associations representing black interest are still knee-deep in fighting the remnants of the apartheid system that remain ingrained in our society. While some associations have struggled to find their footing in the new dispensation and have had to be retired like battle-scarred warhorses, many newer organisations have had to evolve.

Organisations such as the Association for the Advancement of Black Accountants of Southern Africa (ABASA) and the Association of Black Securities and Investment Professionals (ABSIP) understand that today’s struggle is one of economic empowerment and as such are focused on breaking down barriers that hinder people of colour from accessing the benefits of participating meaningfully in the economy. Yet the challenge that many organisations face is not merely prohibitive practices, especially in the private sector. The consequential requirement is that those black professionals who do “make it” have to maintain a higher level of proficiency than is expected of their white counterparts, meaning the idea of excellence should inherently precede any black individual or organisation that seeks to make inroads in any industry.

Established in 1985, ABASA was formed with aim of uniting accountants and aspiring accountants to promote and facilitate the identification and creation of opportunities that provide advancement for black people in the accounting profession. Between 2002 and 2016 the number of black chartered accountants has increased by 615%, going from 1 352 to 9 674. According to ABASA’s current president, Mbusiswa Ngcobo, “the reason for the rise in numbers is a result of collaborative partnerships between the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA), ABASA, African Women Chartered Accountants (AWCA) and the government, primarily the Department of Education”. He also credits initiatives such as SAICA’s Thuthuka Fund as being a contributor, to some level, to South Africa being able to increase the number of black CAs.

Mr Ngcobo says that they also recognise “the very strong contribution made by black academics who are working in SAICA-accredited university programmes. They are also contributing a lot in terms of dealing with the biases that are prevalent in the education system as well as creating a welcoming culture at universities.” “These academics,” he goes on to say, “also interpret content in a more culturally familiar way for the black students.”

The rise in numbers of black CAs, though significant in and of itself, is paltry compared to the total number of CAs in the country, which stands at just over 40 000. Part of the reason for the slow progress has to do with the lack of an efficient skills development pipeline that can identify talent and grow it from a young age as possible. It is for this reason that ABSIP has, as part of its five key pillars, chosen to focus on youth development. According to the ABSIP president, Sibongiseni Mbatha, youth development includes offering bursary opportunities to grade 11 students and matriculants. The organisation also has grown its student chapter to encompass more than 10 universities around the country.

In recent years the financial sector has been hit hard by a number of scandals involving large as well as smaller companies. Corporates such as Steinhoff have seen their share prices crash as a result of apparent financial irregularities. African Bank Investments Limited (Abil) virtually collapsed in 2014 before making an arduous comeback. Auditing firm KPMG also suffered a devastating blow to its reputation. VBS Mutual Bank essentially came undone in spectacular fashion while another auditing firm, Nkonki Inc, saw its largest office undergo voluntary liquidation.

While some of these cases rocked the finance industry to the core, it was the latter two companies that left a deeper sense of unease in the collective psyche of black professionals. When companies such as Steinhoff and KPMG made headlines, there was general resignation to the salacious realities of corporate greed. Yet, in the stories around VBS and Nkonki, there was a different undertone. The fact that these two companies were black-owned companies seemed to echo loudly. When there is poor representation of a group of people, those who are present seem to carry a disproportional duty that offers low margins for error.

However, ABSIP's president is quick to caution against illusory connotations of the demise of the two companies as representative of either a failure of black business or the lack of black professionals' capacity to run large companies. He points out that VBS’s failure was as a result of a handful of individuals and those individuals “do not represent us”.

The importance and significance of associations that stand for a disenfranchised people come into play when they offer tangible support and leadership when those whom they represent need it the most. When the public contracts that Nkonki held were cancelled and the firm’s Sunninghill office had to close shop, ABASA stepped in to ensure that the training contracts of trainee chartered accountants were not put at risk. The organisation, through its relationship with the leadership of Nkonki, worked to help secure new opportunities for the prospective CAs who were working for the company at the time when it registered for liquidation.

Addressing the historical disempowerment of women has become integral in the cause for socioeconomic transformation in our country. The Association of Black Securities and Investment Professionals (ABSIP) has several initiatives that target black women professionals in the finance sector. ABSIP has birthed the Women Leadership Programme, which has more than 40 beneficiaries.

The role of women in leadership positions of large companies has also been in the news in recent years. These developments, however, have been received with a mixture of excitement and reserved apprehension. Nhlamu Dlomu and Basani Maluleke have both been appointed as CEOs of KPMG and African Bank respectively.

Nhlamu Dlomu was appointed at a time when the audit firm was in the midst of one of its worst reputational crises to date. During this time several male senior executives resigned from their positions. Nhlamu Dlomu was essentially left to clean up the mess that they left behind. This creates a dichotomy where niggling questions arise as to why the company picked that very period, when things had already gone awry, to appoint a black female leader. Was it a PR move to quell the media flames that were lapping at the company’s feet?

Such inferences would seemingly be disingenuous in that it would strip away the merits of black professionals based on factors that were essentially out of their control. ABASA’s Mbusiswa Ngcobo explains, “Where we get (black) female leadership within corporate South Africa, we should still celebrate because it gives us the opportunity to learn. From a South African perspective, we do not have enough collective memory that we have created in order to make any call in terms of female leadership primarily because the industry has not yet opened up (to female leadership)”.

One of the most fundamental tenets of associations that represent the disempowered is an ability to authoritatively shape narratives. Media houses seeking to make sales and gain traffic are more than willing to focus on the more disparaging side of any story. Complex issues and the lesson that they carry can be often lost in the simplistic packaging of news to cater to a distracted and despondent audience.

Stats SA has released dire unemployment numbers, more so among the youth population. Yet research shows that there are serious shortages in skilled labour. This means that there is an intrinsic disconnect. The state can only do so much while trying to balance everything on the knife edge of a struggling economy. This means that it is up to civil organisations to interrogate the gaps and to galvanise through strong thought leadership and brave vision as well as a tenacious desire to see tangible change.