Skin Colour as a Proxy for Preference in the New South Africa

A personal view – March 2014


For me, the recent debate within the DA about race-based BEE work practices brought this issue to the fore. Whilst acknowledging the iniquities of Apartheid, the methods employed by the current ANC government to ameliorate the situation stuck in the craw. Maybe my hopes for a colour blind future in South Africa were derailed along with the debate.

As a liberal by inclination and a freedom of choice advocate, a la Milton, by belief, this further tightening of the racist based employment policies was precisely that which I would have denigrated the previous Nationalist government about: An uncritical use of skin colour to determine preference.

What a disappointment!

How ironic was my immediate reaction! The solution to racism is reverse racist or is that too simplistic? Isn’t freedom in whatever form supposed to be absolute? If not totally absolute at least it should have as few exceptions to that principle as possible otherwise “one could drive the proverbial train through it” & thereby subvert the theory. These principles apply equally to security or free speech.

To understand my thought process, one has to understand my political viewpoint over the past 40 years since I have been able to vote. I have always cast my ballot for the DA and its antecedents commencing with the Progressive Party when its sole MP was Helen Suzman. Never once was the Nationalist government even considered as a possible recipient of my vote however competent their candidate in my constituency was. He – and was always a male – was indubitably tarred by a racist brush.

In those days, the very idea of equality to the majority of white society was revolutionary and unimaginable. Even believing that it was possible meant being labelled as a kaffir-boetie which was equally as derogatory & disparaging as being called a Liberal. The commentator’s derisive query inevitably was whether one’s sister would marry a Black. How abominable! They shuddered when contemplating the possibility.

All left-wing organisations bore the invective and bile of the Nationalist government. Their swart gewaar tactics were designed to engender a fear not only of the Black Majority but those pleading their case in the very heart of apartheid, the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town. A sole white MP bore that venom of not only the Nationalist MPs but those of the Opposition, the United Party.

Whilst admitting the iniquity of the policy of Apartheid, my fervent wish was for a colour-blind future without race being the arbiter of jobs, opportunity, bursaries & a host of normal societal goods and norms.

Instead the opposite is now true. There is a fixation and harping on race in all spheres of society but not by the so-called recalcitrant white minority but by the supposedly non-racist black majority.

A History Lesson

Instead of the well-worn path of the current version of history with its exclusive focus on the struggle by Black South Africa for the rightful place within its society, I will dwell on a different angle to this.

This approach has not been adopted to belittle or diminish the enormity of the Black’s injustice but rather to spotlight a different injustice as this will its turn illuminate the inhumanity of policies whether based on race, religion, language or culture.

This history still covers the period from the Nationalist’s ascension to power in 1948 as a minority government under DF Malan. Despite Jan Smuts fighting a vicious war of independence against the imperial British and losing in the Anglo Boer War, he became the Great Unifier in South African politics whereas the Nationalist Party became the defender of Afrikaner exclusivity vis-à-vis all other people’s in South Africa.

The NP gathered together all the disaffected Afrikaners in SA especially the indigent, the under-class and the farmers. This was not a party of inclusivity but exclusivity, the Afrikaner Volk. Their vitriol was not solely directed at the black populace but in equal measure the English speaking minority within the overall white minority.

This had severe consequences for the patriotic hard working middle to upper people; they were steadily squeezed out of the civil service not by legislated AA targets, but through side-lining, victimising and in many other nefarious ways. The vast majority decamped from the Civil Service rapidly into the private sector where their skills were welcomed with open arms. This unfair treatment was born stoically by the victims but as there was an alternative where their skills would be appreciated and acknowledged, the deep hurts evaporated over time. The last English speaking cohorts are rapidly passing on and their pain at their unjust treatment is now only heard in the various biographies of the period.

The more liberal wing of the English community left so alienated from the racist rhetoric that they either emigrated or in several cases joined parties on the left such as the Liberal Party.

The Civil Service suffered the consequences of the hasty retrenchment of institution memory and vital skills as the standard plummeted. The Army for instance was starved of new equipment as the new administration felt a threat from that quarter. Only in the early 1960s was this policy reversed mainly because the reins of power in the military were by that stage firmly in Afrikaner hands.

Varsities such as my old alma mater, UPE, were strictly controlled by the Broederbond disadvantaging or debarring so-called liberal Engelises besighede from the campus. Sport on a Sunday was forbidden on campus and the only political party allowed to canvas on campus was the ruling party. How democratic and from an institution whose raison d’etre was to cultivate open minds!

Those non-Afrikaners instinctively drawn to the Nats, as they were called, were repulsed by their inward focus on the Afrikaner to the exclusion of all other races and languages. The distance between whites themselves grew wider than a chasm.

The English speaking child grew-up with the realisation that progress in the job market would not be found in the Civil Service. Every opportunity would be taken to overlook them for promotion.

Most of my relations who were in government employ steadily resigned in the 1960s to join the private sector. Small pockets of English speakers survived but these were steadily whittled away.

Those English speakers whose talents lay in an area compromised by Afrikaner control, quickly emigrated to use their talents overseas.

Current scourge of race based legislation and polices

On grasping power unexpectedly in the 1990s, the first consideration of the movement was the changing of the skin colour on the occupants of Civil Service jobs. For totally justifiable reasons, the necessity to have greater racial representivity in the Civil Service was a sine qua non.

All but the most obdurate of the white electorate would disagree with that view. However what became rapidly apparent was not advancement based on ability but rather on numbers and skin colour. The competent whites in the government service were rapidly sidelined by incompetents with no technical skill. Institutional memory was rapidly lost on the altar of expediency and political patronage.

Whilst not decrying the general thrust of government policy, the manner in which it was achieved would ultimately cost South Africa hundreds of billions of Rands. The veritable tip of the iceberg is being revealed in the current scandals. This cost includes not only outright theft and fraud but more insidiously the cost of poor services.

An illuminating example is that of education. Despite having an above average expenditure in this regard, the outcomes are nevertheless abysmal. The same conclusion can be drawn from other key departments such as Health. The wealthy are largely unaffected by this incompetence as they can afford to let the private sector provide these services be they security, education or health care.

A telling comment by Tito Mboweni when he was Governor of the Reserve Bank to the effect that white South Africans would have to provide for their own services and not rely on the State’s Coffers was never challenged or even highlighted. But that went to the nub of ANC policies. A vigorous attack was never launched on such a racist concept of government services.

This statement implies that all Blacks should benefit from Black Rule irrespective of the level of benefit & conversely that all whites should pay for the sins of their forefathers irrespective of whether they were at the bottom of the ladder.

Herein lies a fallacy of the one-size-fits-all mentality of the ANC: All whites were equally culpable and benefitted equally from Apartheid. Like all Societies, there are shades of both with numerous being a shade of grey. This rationalisation by the ANC suits both their political purpose and makes the justification of iniquities policies palatable to their conscience.

The latest decision by the SA Blood Transfusion Service to retrench senior Whites to achieve a racial quota irrespective of whether the current incumbent is competent or not and whether there are in fact competent blacks to assume those positions was irrelevant. The objective was to achieve a target irrespective of the negative consequences to organisational efficiencies or the effect on the current incumbents. This portrays an attitude no less abhorrent from what Apartheid Government’s mentality in its fixation on race.

No doubt the management of the SANBS will justify their irrational decision based upon the BEE requirements of the current ANC government but is it no less disgusting than the previous Nationalist government.

It was certainly not my expectation from a supposedly non-racist government.

Mmusi Maimane of the DA and his wife typify the nascent future

Mmusi Maimane of the DA and his wife typify the nascent future

A Colour-Blind Future

Will pigs learn to fly? Probably never in the short-term but there is possible hope in the long-term.

Why so negative about the short-term? In fact I am extremely pessimistic about the short-term. The short answer to this question relates to growth, economic growth. The abject failure of the economy to growth robustly to not only offer meaningful employment to the current cohort of school and varsity finishers but also to mop up the unemployment backlog has not been forthcoming.

I strongly suspect and attribute this to the jitteriness amongst the potential entrepreneurial class who would rather employ those skills elsewhere rather than be hamstrung by Employment Equity requirements and an unruly unproductive working class ill-suited to the industrial needs of a bifurcated economy.

Simply put at South Africa’s stage of economic development, what is required is massive industrialisation on the back of low wages and minimal legislative impediments to optimising production. Whilst this process may be brutal, it has been the engine which made both America and China great. Only once the industrial growth had consumed all the available cheap labour were Trade Unions able to get traction and pass on the benefits of their efforts to the workers.

It is my considered belief that the 2014 General Election will herald the first race-based campaign last seen in the 1980’s.

Already the portents are not averse. The recent formation of the EFF, led by a loud-mouthed racist, of dubious moral conviction is an early indicator of this trend. This will become the repository of the disaffected & unemployed youth who without a sliver of economic savvy, will demand and expect the unattainable. From a pure moral perspective, I possess a large measure of sympathy for their plight. Unskilled and possessing none of the entrepreneurial flair to constructively engage the first world part of society, they will forever be mired in a whirlpool of poverty, crime & deprivation.

Like a magnet, the EFF will draw them in. This is not a racist phenomenon. Germany witnessed just such a similar political shift in the wake of the Great Depression in the early 1930’s. With a third of its people unemployed, the bigoted fanatical NSPP, the Nazis, rose to power. Similarly the post 2008 banking crash has witnessed the birth of radical parties across Europe. The crucible for the formation of these radical racist black might have been the culmination of inappropriate labour and social policies of the ANC but the brunt of black electorate’s wrath not be borne by them but by the white community.

In order to counteract the drift to the radical left, the ANC’s stance & its rhetoric will align itself with his shift. Again this is a situation which is not unique to South Africa but rather a compensatory method of preventing the loss of members to that quarter.

A colour-blind future in South Africa, if there is ever to be one is predicated upon a large stable black middle class with a significant stake in stability. Given the huge disparities between black & white in SA, the elimination of these backlogs will necessarily be lengthy.

I am not hopefully for my grand-children in this regard but my great grand-children stand a fair to middling chance of not being judged by the colour of their skin.

Isn’t that ironic? The ANC government which came to power with the intention of severing the umbilical cord between race and prejudice, continuing to judge people’s abilities and opportunities on precisely that basis.

One’s skill colour is currently and is expected to remain the final arbiter of one’s worth in the New South Africa for the foreseeable future.

A luta continua!


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