The big colourful elephant in the room

Seldom is the multi-coloured elephant in the room rendered as visible as in this searching article. Perhaps it’s because a relatively small group of historically-denied South Africans now above a certain income bracket, have too much to lose – or that too many previously-privileged South Africans feel too guilty to confront them, or politicians who insist that glaringly counter-productive, race-based policies must stay. Probably both. In psychology, you affirm someone for a quality or skill they have, for what they bring to the common weal. In the ANC, racially-corrective speak, you reward a person mainly for the colour of their skin, with other vital attributes less of a priority. It’s apt that the media head of the Institute of Race Relations Michael Morris, who’s long witnessed evolving South Africa politics, strips the room of all décor, the better to force attention on the multi-coloured elephant. He takes a portentous question by an erstwhile ANC stalwart Mosiuoa Lekota, (later Cope), to reproach those whose obsession with race a quarter of a century after it defined a government, threatens to emulate it. More than that, he outlines what it costs us, our people and the economy – all our people, all South Africans; not just a few, privileged by policy and legislation. First published on the Daily Friend. – Chris Bateman

This is the question we must ask ourselves

By Michael Morris*

When will we cease to be Africans, coloureds, Indians and whites and merely be South Africans?

These words are not mine – which, all these years after they were spoken, is distressing, and mainly because when they were spoken (and given who the speaker was) they seemed to herald a measure of sensible introspection, a reckoning, which did not come to pass, with the meaning of collective South African interests rather than merely with the competing claims of apartheid-era racial categories.

To his great credit, the speaker himself has lived up to his principles, to an ideal that resonates in his question. His name is Mosiuoa Lekota, a veteran who felt so strongly about the verities of the real struggle, that he left the liberation movement he had been part of, and suffered exceedingly for, to stand in opposition to it.

In 2004, however, he was not only South Africa’s Minister of Defence, he was also national chairperson of the African National Congress (ANC).

And what he said in Parliament was, indeed, simply this: ‘When will we cease to be Africans, coloureds, Indians and whites and merely be South Africans? This is the question we must ask ourselves.’

In an interview at the time, he made the rather more pointed observation about race-based affirmative measures: ‘We cannot keep them forever and allow ourselves to be accused of practising that which we fought against.’

Even back then, though, it was already more than a question of principle.

Read also: SLR Diary: When it’s OK to pull the race card – and other reflections on the body politic

A decade of democracy had demonstrated just how difficult it was going to be to cast off the burdens of the past and stimulate the conditions sufficient to guaranteeing a different, brighter future.

What we know about the ironically named ‘employment equity’ regime of the ANC in the decade and a half since 2004 is that it has failed dismally in its avowed aim – either of equity or of empowerment – and has, in addition, sponsored a political narrative of racial nationalism that exploits an imagined division between white and black people that isn’t even there.

As we have argued in recent times, contrary to what you see on social media and in much of the mainstream media, South Africa is not a society divided against itself. It stands out in our polling time and again that a comfortable majority of South Africans, across lines of race and class, respect one another and remain invested in the others’ success.

Which is exactly why it is distressing this decade and a half later to recognise that Lekota’s reasoned introspection was not the ruling ANC’s.

And, as a result, everything is worse today – higher unemployment, pitifully low skills among those who crave and need them most to get ahead, feeble economic growth, the addition of absurd and taxing burdens on the most enterprising (whose efforts and energies are actually the key to addressing the first-mentioned deficits) and a national conversation in which even outwardly intelligent people (many of whom presume they are entitled to exemption from the penalties of the policies they endorse) go along with racial nationalist reasoning without a moment’s intelligent, or moral, hesitation.

Over the years, I have listened to school governing bodies – as just one example – anguishing over what steps they must take to ‘transform’ their schools without giving a second’s thought to why it is the feeder areas of the schools they govern remain – for the most part – stubbornly unchanged.

Read also: Helen Zille sorry for entering ‘race narrative’ arena

Twenty five years is a long time, but not long enough for race-based so-called empowerment to make anything like the difference its intended beneficiaries were led to believe it would. The consequence is, indeed, anguish – but also recrimination, heightened racialism, envy, mistrust, resentment.

Townships are still townships, suburbs are for the ‘lucky’ middle classes, who, you will be persuaded to believe, live there only because they are privileged or selfish, uncaring or unpatriotic.

The real failure goes unaddressed, and those to blame for it are implicitly exonerated by public commentators enfeebled by an overweening hankering for misplaced approval.

Around the time of Lekota’s testing question in parliament, I had the opportunity to interview Robert Guest, the Africa editor of The Economist, who had just written a book on Africa, The Shackled Continent.

I wrote at the time that ‘his is an instructive outsider’s view of what we are trying to achieve in South Africa’. His observations about ‘white South Africa’ are telling.

‘(Whites) may be politically powerless, but they have money and skills,’ he writes. ‘Those who are unsatisfied can emigrate, as many have, to Europe or Australia. For those who stay behind, legally mandated discrimination will provide an incentive to acquire marketable skills… (and) most whites will succeed in making themselves commercially indispensable. In the long run this will probably make them richer.’

But the conditions spurring this process were affirmative action measures actually intended to help the poor.

Guest points out that while affirmative action is portrayed as a means of helping the poor, the beneficiaries are mainly the middle class, ‘those who have already largely overcome the legacy of past discrimination’.

In contrast, he argues, the poor lose, in two ways. ‘First, they receive worse public services than they otherwise would. Second, affirmative action retards growth and so makes it harder for the jobless to find work.’

Why should this be so?

As always with affirmative action (as was the case with the white Nationalists after they came to power in 1948) corrective discrimination, Guest notes perceptively, ‘is implemented much more aggressively in the civil service than in private companies’.

‘It is easier for the government to absorb staff for political reasons, but private firms offering shoddier or more expensive goods or services simply lose customers. So bureaucrats find it easier to recruit by race than do firms that have to make a profit to survive.’

Guest acknowledges that in the new South Africa, most poor people, who are mainly black, receive much better public services than they did under apartheid, but makes the point that the government could provide more if it was colour-blind.

‘All firms bidding for public works contracts are required to have black partners or managers. Firms deemed “blacker” than their rivals are allowed to charge up to about 10% more [that’s probably modest by today’s shocking standards] and still win the contract. This is wonderful for blacks who own construction companies. But since the government is paying more than it needs to, the poor receive fewer houses, water pumps and village roads than they should. In effect, “affirmative procurement” is a transfer of wealth from the poor to the well-off.’

He saw that affirmative action was being pursued ‘less enthusiastically’ by the private sector, but, because it was a legal requirement, it ‘is still a hefty burden’.

‘Time and effort devoted to meeting racial quotas cannot be spent improving products. Hiring on grounds other than merit is unlikely to foster excellence. The rest of the world will not buy an inferior South African product simply to assist in “transformation”. Nor will many South Africans.’

Of course, detractors will – as they do – dismiss both the IRR and The Economist as pro-market advocates whom the poor have no reason to heed. (Although, funnily enough, it’s only the liberals who don’t feel obliged to tell the poor how to live.)

But here’s a thing. Only days after Lekota spoke up in Parliament for an undiscriminating South Africanhood, a report by the (now defunct) South African Press Agency incorporated the view of left-wing academic and then Anti-Privatisation Forum spokesperson Dale McKinley, who commented as bluntly as any IRR columnist: ‘Affirmative action policies are only beneficial to those with skills. The majority of South Africa’s poor have no skills and no way of getting into the middle class.’

And that’s where we are today. Only it’s worse – and only because of the ANC government’s self-serving insistence not only on sticking to a policy that doesn’t work, but, more recently, promising to intensify it.

And this in the face of a moderate majority of South Africans who subscribe to merit, not quotas, and to solid South African virtues, not the grubby racialism we were meant to have defeated in 1994, and who are suffering because too few are willing to speak up for either.

  • Michael Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations. If you like what you have just read, become a Friend of the IRR if you aren’t already one by SMSing your name to 32823 or clicking here. Each SMS costs R1.’ Terms & Conditions Apply.