The roots of SA’s developing BEE share ownership culture: Visiting a Walk-In Help Centre

EquityExpress1Those who travel along Corlett Drive in Johannesburg will have noticed long queues snaking up the block from the Equity Express Walk-In Centre. It was created to assist new shareholders, specifically those participating in the dozen BEE share schemes that the company manages for a range of clients. A strict registration process is required to ensure those who trade in the BEE shares are actually qualified to do so (ie are Black). The queues are set to grow over the next few weeks ahead of the listing of the latest BEE share trading facility managed by Equity Express, this time for over 100 000 investors in Vodacom. Earlier this week, our social media/trainee reporter Caitlin Hogg and Biznews webmaster/photographer Justin Blake went along to the Walk-In Help Centre to see what happens where the tackie hits the tar. This is the first part of a two-post article on the currently most popular schemes, Welkom Yizani and Phuthuma Nathi, their shareholders on the street and their experiences registering to trade. – AH

By Caitlin Hogg

“One message I’d like for you to put across is to encourage others like us. The opportunity is here, the power is truly in their hands. We are the future wealth creators.” Father of two young kids under 10 years old, Akhona Damane is sold on shares. And the way they can help build wealth for people like himself never before exposed to equities. A poster investor, in some ways, for BEE.

Damane made the trip to the small customer service office of Equity Express, the company which handles the trading platform for a number of BEE share schemes. He wanted to know how to register his wife to trade – a process to ensure only those who qualify as Historically Disadvantaged Individuals (HDI) get to participate in what is, after all, a Black Economic Empowerment vehicle. He was the first person we spoke to when we walked into the sweltering service centre. He was battling to get through on the phone so decided to organise the interaction face to face. Not someone who was about to trade any of his Phuthuma Nathi shares, mind. Those will be saved for a rainy day, put aside for the children’s’ education.

Articulate and well informed, Damane reckons: “We know in South Africa that we have political freedom. But it’s great to see people beginning to understand the importance of economic freedom. People are always about three pay cheques away from poverty. If we can get people to play the shares, most importantly the historically disadvantaged of the nation, and they can really get to understand what shareholding means and how it works, the country will benefit.”

Internet users in South Africa as a percentage of the population

In our country, where only a quarter 26% are educated to Matric level, where the real rate of literacy is debatable and access to the internet remains low at around 16% nationally, the way share trading works globally no doubt had to be adapted to work in this rather different shareholders market.

Anywhere else in the world, the approach to registering to trade one’s shares would follow a process: Certify documents, scan said documents to computer, email or fax documents to a trading body. In South Africa, it’s common to see queues stretching out of the doors of the Equity Express offices, often running right up the block along Johannesburg’s Corlett Drive.

The BEE share registration offices were instantly recognisable on an otherwise empty road. On the day we visited, around ten people were sitting patiently in-line outside, thankfully under shading in the near 30 degree heat that defines Johannesburg in early January. Inside, the offices resembled home affairs, buzzing with activity, although the smiles of the five staffers was an unexpected surprise amid the throng.

Inside, I was told, were the folks who’d arrived with all of their documentation correct, ready to register. Outside the line continued, where newcomers were addressed individually by the Helpdesk Supervisor, Dankie Mashamba, who checked their paperwork. Those with the correct documents were allowed to queue. Those who did not were told what they needed.

Once registered, the shareholder is sent a confirmation code either by SMS or email. The problem with this, Dankie advised me, was that the vast majority of the registrants did not have an email address, and in an odd case, had not brought their cellphone with them from home. A hefty return trip if you were to live hours away in, say, Newcastle. More so if that trip had been made by taxi.

I was impressed to hear the extent to which the five person team stretched themselves to serve their clientele’s shareholders; creating email addresses for them on-site, using staff’s personal cellphones to contact family of the shareholders for the code to register them, keeping the doors open for hours after closing time. “If someone has travelled the whole day just to register,” said Dankie, “how can we stop them at the door and say no, just because we want to go home?”

A common complaint among those we spoke to was being unable to get through to the nearby Call Centre, even though it is manned by 80 staff members. The company accommodates the trade of 12 different Broad-based BEE share scheme clients. Two of them dominated the day that we visited: Welkom Yizani (Media24) and Phuthuma Nathi (Multichoice).

Overheard was no doubt the same explanation repeated a multitude of times to various complaints regarding the phone lines,  “We have on average ten thousand people trying to contact us daily by telephone. It ends up taking a while to get through, which is why we have the Walk-in Help Centre. There’s no hassle with faxes or emails, and speaking to you in person lets us explain everything about the shares and how they work.”

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