Black Economic Empowerment is a highly debated issue in contemporary South Africa. Yet few South Africans realize that they are following a postcolonial trajectory already experienced by other countries. This paper presents a case study of British firms during decolonization in Ghana and Nigeria in the 1950s and 1960s, which saw a parallel development in business and society to that which occurred in South Africa in the 1990s and 2000s. Despite fundamental differences between these states, all have had to empower a majority of black citizens who had previously suffered discrimination on the basis of race. The paper employs concepts from social capital theory to show that the process of postcolonial transition in African economies has been more politically and socially disruptive than empowerment in Western countries. Historical research contributes to our understanding of the nature of institutional shocks in emerging economies.