Scrutinising ‘privilege’ shows where South Africa really needs to get to work.

Much as it often threatens detractors on the Left and Right, it is a liberal article of faith that no idea is above scrutiny, and the public argument about ‘privilege’ in recent days is an illustration of its virtue. 

Scrutiny is essential not only in testing fondly nurtured myths and assumptions, but in framing questions that are too often obscured by guilt or shame and so are made implicitly impermissible. 

In properly scrutinising ‘privilege’ in 2019, for instance, it is impossible to argue that white-skinned people were not given vast advantages by apartheid – along, of course, with complex endowments conferred without their necessarily having chosen them by history. But scrutiny makes it just as impossible to suggest that this, on its own, explains – is to blame for – the persisting disadvantages that burden millions of black people today.

In his Daily Friend article, ‘White privilege is at best only half the story’, on Monday, John Kane Berman provided an unadorned summary of these two essential truths about the ‘privilege’ debate when he wrote: ‘Whites were of course enormously privileged by the apartheid system. The privilege of the whites-only franchise led inexorably to a host of other privileges, including the industrial colour bar, trade union rights withheld from black Africans, property rights denied to others, and grossly discriminatory spending on school education. Even though this discrimination has gone, some of the benefits of privilege no doubt linger. But efforts to counter it by reverse racial preferencing have created a privileged black class at the cost of ruining most of the public sector, wrecking economic growth, and perpetuating exclusion and unemployment.’

Yet, in what is surely a symptom of the intellectual debility that afflicts too many in our national conversation, a social media post labelled this line of reasoning ‘dangerous rhetoric’ on the grounds that ‘conflating’ the politics of corrupt patronage with ‘white privilege entitlement’ was ‘super short-sighted’.

If that’s all it did, it would doubtless have been flawed. 

(Ironically, of course, if one thing stimulates misguided notions of white superiority it is the idea that education, knowledge, expertise, inventiveness, hard work and all the other ingredients of success are bound up with ‘whiteness’, which disregards the deeper, wider, multi-coloured heritage of human advancement.)

The real flaw lies in believing that huge existing socio-economic disparities arise either from post-democracy corruption, or white entitlement, or a combination of the two. 

Clean governance, and indeed the erasure of ‘entitlement’, white or otherwise, are creditable goals – but neither on its own will do a thing to overcome disadvantage or alter the country’s socio-economic profile. 

And it’s only through scrutiny that it’s possible to penetrate the moral wrapping that ‘privilege’ comes in to see that its components are the very things society must replicate if it is to have any hope of prospering. 

At the heart of it is policy. 

The democratic dividend in South Africa since 1994 has been considerable, but 2019 finds the country desperately needing policy reform on a much greater scale. The economy is limping, unemployment is rising, school education (the most vital building block of change) is chronically deficient, entrepreneurs and employers are harried and denigrated, and the dependable, tax-paying middle class is rewarded with suspicion and hostility. 

There remains an unignorable chasm between skilled, prosperous South Africans, many of them white, and the yearning masses of the poor, most of them black – yet racially divisive ‘transformation’ which is predicated on undermining the supposed sin of ‘privilege’ only widens the chasm by rejecting the materials needed to close it, and sponsors racial discord in the process.

When the skills, expertise, commitment and investment of successful South Africans is undermined, the perverse effect is that not only are the individuals themselves devalued, but their skills are, too. 

As Kane-Berman argues, ‘reverse racial preferencing’ has proved a failure for misperceiving the objective. Redistributing assets from one part of society to another does not simultaneously transfer the skill, expertise, stamina and effort that went into producing them – but actually penalises these qualities and nullifies the scope for multiplying them.  

In this way, ‘privilege’ walks hand in hand with ‘transformation’ in delivering the dubious achievement of sustaining discord at the cost of progress.

Michael Morris is head of media at the IRR.

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