‘To raise our country and its people from the morass of racism and apartheid will require determination and effort.’

 So said Nelson Mandela in an address in Cape Town on 9 May 1994, the day prior to his inauguration as president. While it alluded to what would become an enduring theme for South Africa – fighting racism – its significance lies in the fact that it recognised that this would not be an easy task.

With the release last week of the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, government once again declared its rocksteady determination to go defeat these evils. As President Cyril Ramaphosa put it in his foreword: ‘Let us make our next 25 years of freedom a period where we will indeed be free of the divisions, discrimination and intolerance of our past.’

Ambitious expectations indeed.

In truth, it’s doubtful that anything serious can be expected from the current initiative. This is not the first such push to rid the country of racism (and cynics might peremptorily remark that it won’t be the last), and it is difficult to see in it any evidence of fresh or innovative thinking.

Most of the document revolves around superficial analyses of various phenomena, frequently ascribing them (typically with some measure of validity) to South Africa’s past – ‘apartheid and colonialism’ – and describing the measures that government has put in place over the years to address them. It notes in places that these were not as successful and may have been hoped. But one is hard-pressed to find any real analysis of why that might be. 

Thus, it claims:

The 2017 Land Audit reported that out of 76% of national agricultural land, 72% thereof is owned by White South Africans, 15% by Coloured persons, 5% by persons of Indian descent, 4% by Black South Africans and 3% by others. Women own only 13% of farmland. Today, land ownership in South Africa is still skewed along racial and patriarchal lines. The challenge of land reform is that the pace has been too slow. In 1994, government had set itself a target to transfer 30% of the total productive land by 2014. This was not achieved. The use of the ‘market value’ and ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ principles over ‘just and equitable’ in the compensation of land owners are major contributing factors.

Its facts are incorrect. The land audit did not claim that ’76% of national agricultural land’ is so divided. Actually, it’s not clear where the 76% figure comes from. What it found was that of ‘farmland’ owned by private individuals and held on a freehold basis (less than a third of the country) 72% is owned by whites, 15% by Coloured people, 5% by Indians and 4% by Africans. The vast majority of privately-owned land is held by corporations and trusts, to which a racial identity cannot be ascribed. The latter includes much of what was transferred through land reform projects. Large parts of the country – probably around a quarter of total area – is owned by the state in one form or another. This includes most of the holdings to which Africans have traditionally had access. Since 1994, government has shown scant interest in granting private ownership to Africans, and in the last decade has as a matter of policy retained land acquired for redistribution as its own.

To imply that compensation issues are decisive in the failure of land reform is selective at best. The High Level Panel on the Assessment of Key Legislation and the Acceleration of Fundamental Change under former President Kgalema Motlanthe put it in these terms: ‘Experts advise that the need to pay compensation has not been the most serious constraint on land reform in South Africa to date – other constraints, including increasing evidence of corruption by officials, the diversion of the land reform budget to elites, lack of political will, and lack of training and capacity, have proved more serious stumbling blocks to land reform.

And whether ‘market value’ has in fact trumped ‘just and equitable’ as a basis for compensation (and whether they are fundamentally different), it is well to remember that it is government that has never carried a test case to court. 

Perhaps more noteworthy is the document’s use of racial representivity – or rather, the failure to reflect it – as an implied signifier of racism. Thus, to achieve representivity in all fields is to defeat racism. This has long dominated government thinking as a goal in itself, and as a means of diagnosing what might be termed ‘structural’ or ‘objective’ racism. It was a dominant theme as far back as the South African Human Rights Commission’s Conference in Racism – entitled A Nation in Dialogue – in 2000.

The late Professor Lawrence Schlemmer wrote at that time that ‘the conflation of racism and socio-economic structure will create an even more persistent and dangerous consciousness in our society’.

White people, he noted, are disproportionately placed to thrive in a modern economy, primarily due to better educational attainment. This may be ascribed to apartheid-era preferences and their ongoing consequences (as the plan does). But combined with the failure of public schooling and the inability to achieve anything beyond anaemic growth rates (both issues which the plan curiously does not subject to much interrogation), it means that white people are likely to remain relatively prosperous even as a large part of the black population struggles to find an entry into the economy. Group differentials are likely to persist, and thus ‘racism’ is likely to endure.

Its own response is to offer nothing more substantive that more affirmative action, more empowerment, more state support. Nothing, in other words, that is not current policy. And there is no sense that any of this should be examined for its practical efficacy rather than its ideological attractiveness. There is plenty of evidence that these policies are doing little to help those most in need of upliftment, but rather incentivise racial thinking. 

The ‘debate’ around land reform, for example, has been permeated with racial nationalism, and has already cost the country economic opportunities, most notably the possibility of a windfall after the accession of Mr Ramaphosa to the presidency. Racial empowerment policies have likewise been associated with the debacle at Eskom – an economic disaster if ever there was one.

As Schlemmer warned, this could elevate social tensions. And the plan states intriguingly: ‘We are increasingly living in a world that focuses more and more on difference, a world that is becoming increasingly intolerant.’ It neglects to state that a good deal of policy and much political rhetoric in contemporary South Africa reflects this.

One notable failing in the plan is any recognition that stoking racial tensions are inherent to the political strategies of some prominent politicians. It is difficult – as we at the IRR have argued – to look at the Economic Freedom Fighters and its leader and not to recognise the role that promoting division and inter-group hostility plays. And not only in that party. Leaders of the ruling party, not least the current president, have both subtly and openly appealed to racial solidarity, regularly referring to ‘our people’ – by implication dismissing ‘their people’. 

Or one could point to the stigmatisation of farmers as land thieves and abusers of their workers. Or to the xenophobic remarks made by cabinet ministers about foreign traders and the ‘takeover’ of local business opportunities.

And hence the importance of Mandela’s words. To deal with the country’s tumultuous racial politics and the past from which it arises is hard work. It’s serious work. It demands nothing less than squarely facing the issues that confront us, assessing our assumptions and adapting our strategies accordingly. The plan is right to emphasise the importance of the economy, but fails to encourage the sort of bold and uncomfortable thinking that we so desperately need. The IRR has argued for a new paradigm in which race is deemphasised and poverty and exclusion is addressed on its own terms – a shift from Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) to Economic Empowerment for the Disadvantaged (EED). This would attack the material problems, and deny oxygen to race baiters.

Yet, perhaps despite itself, the plan puts the embryo of an idea forward. On a page capturing inputs from members of the public the following comment is to be found: ‘Start with the officials and train them to: Answer their telephones immediately. When you arrive at your office, start working and continue to work during office hours and not lounge around and stop eating in front of your stakeholders, asylum seekers and refugees. Don’t speak to stakeholders, asylum seekers or refugees with your mouth full of food.’

Probably made by an activist for migrants, it is an eloquent plea for the state to do its job. Not to embark on philosophical ruminations or moral posturing or world-moving feats of transformation. Merely to attend to the needs to those who have a claim on it. Respect for oneself and for others. 

It’s an idea that could be applied across society – to speedily address potholes and water leaks, to issue licences with despatch, to educate children and care for hospital patients diligently, to handle taxpayers’ money with integrity. 

Until such pedestrian matters can be dealt with, it’s hard to imagine a high-growth, high-growth future. And without that, it’s hard to imagine that we shall ‘raise our country and its people from the morass of racism and apartheid.’

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations