Some of the most vacuous comments about liberalism are also the most demeaning – to black South Africans.

The surest sign of flagging faith in those vainly pitting weak arguments against the idea of liberty for ordinary people is their resorting to labelling the liberal cause ‘right wing’ or ‘racist’ and even ‘white supremacist’.

This pretence at advancing a counterargument succeeds only in revealing the absence of one.

Yet headlines and sound bites of recent days have been peppered with the trivial suggestion that liberalism and its commitment to the dignity and agency of the individual – by definition, every individual – is somehow a proposal for a backward step to an old South African way that is out of kilter with the spirit and the challenges of the present.

Implicit in the labelling and the snide insinuations is the imbecile – but also, of course, revealing – notion that the primary liberal commitment to non-racialism is good for white people, but not for anyone else. From this wells the breath-taking assumption that a party that wishes to represent a majority of South Africans – and be confident of being judged democratic, ‘inclusive’ and non-racial – can only succeed if it is led by a black person.

 It could be that our detractors don’t realise just how far from trivial this assumption actually is, the real import of which is pointedly expressed by my senior colleague, IRR CEO Frans Cronje in the latest Daily Friend podcast.

‘The idea,’ he says, ‘that the DA [Democratic Alliance] has to have a black leader or blacks won’t vote for it is actually about as insulting a thing you can say about black voters and South Africans as anything – that their decisions, their agency, depends on optics and not on the actual offerings made by political parties.’

Yet, we hear it all the time, usually from people who are so ‘progressive’ that they don’t think twice about speaking on behalf of black people.

The origin of such thinking is doubtless the idea that racialism itself (not only categorising people by race, but also treating them differently on racial grounds) is a necessary condition of overcoming the legacy of apartheid, a kind of reverse social engineering.

Genuine support for non-racialism – as liberals argue – must rule out the expedient of trying to turn race itself to good effect. It is a contradiction of principle. But even a purely pragmatic assessment of the record of the past 25 years is a demonstration of why it is also bad policy – bad for being far too ineffective in what it purports to attain.

IRR research shows over and again what it is that needs attention if we are to achieve the free, fair and prosperous future the democratic era promised.

I have written before about the Quality of Life Index created by the Centre for Risk Analysis at the IRR a few years ago to measure South Africans’ quality of life against ten key indicators (on a score of 0 to 10); the matric pass rate; unemployment (based on the expanded definition); monthly expenditure levels of R10 000 or more; household tenure status (houses owned but not yet paid off to a bank); household access to piped water; access to electricity for cooking; access to a basic sanitation facility; irregular or no waste removal; medical aid coverage; and the murder rate.

White South Africans have the highest standard of living, with a final index score of 8.0 (excluding the murder rate) or, including the murder rate, 7.8 – both of which are far above the national averages. Whites had the best outcomes in the matric pass rate; unemployment; expenditure exceeding R10 000 per month; mortgaged houses; waste removal; medical aid coverage and access to basic sanitation. Black people had the worst outcomes on all indicators.

If, as we argue, South Africa is an indivisible society, we also argue that it will not prosper if prospering is not a common expectation for all its people.

It is odd, to say the least, that an organisation that keeps making this point can be described by apparently serious commentators as ‘right wing’ or ‘racist’ or ‘white supremacist’ in its mission to shift public thinking towards policies that have a far greater chance of making a difference.

And nor, as some critics keep trying to imply, does the liberal alternative advocate casting the poor and disadvantaged on the mercy of the market. Most are excluded from the market anyway – that’s the problem, and a problem the IRR, for one, addresses directly in its empowerment alternative, called Economic Empowerment for the Disadvantaged, or EED.

It does not refer to race at all, because it accepts that race is not the problem; it focuses directly on the deficiency itself, which is lingering disadvantage. It harnesses rather than hobbles the agency of the market, and enhances the agency and opportunities of individuals. It incentivises rather than threatens, and rewards rather than punishes.

I am hard-pressed to find a better expression of the ambitions of EED than the words this week of outgoing Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba – despite his wildly misplaced remarks about the IRR – who spoke of the ‘responsibility to work pro-actively to address the legacy of inequality that persists 25 years after the fall of Apartheid’. (The IRR could well borrow from Mashaba again in confidently asserting that a ‘devotion to liberalism is not at odds with [our] desire to ensure that we live in a more just and equal South Africa’.)

By contrast, the status quo is dismal. While Minister of employment and labour Thulas Nxesi threatens punitive measures to enforce greater race-based ‘transformation’, and the economy labours under the increasingly taxing consequences of state interference into who can be employed and why, the actual socio-economic deficit – the disadvantage which ‘empowerment’ falsely promises to overcome – is not only unaddressed but is allowed to worsen.

It is no surprise that what is unprincipled is also ineffective. (Ironically, the reverse is true – bar Sassa’s stumbling – of the State’s own non-racial social grants system.)

Someone wrote this week that ‘we need more than singing “Shosholoza” to build a real shared post-apartheid identity’. In fact, we can safely dispense with the first, because we already have the second.

South Africans, our polling has repeatedly shown, have a keen sense of belonging in a broader society whose success, they believe, is their success, too.

Overwhelming majorities want job creation, fighting corruption, better education and fighting crime to be the top priorities of government; they want people to be appointed on merit, with special training for disadvantaged people; they want sports teams to be selected on merit and not on the basis of race quotas; they don’t care about the race of their children’s teachers, so long as the teachers are good; and they believe that through jobs and education, and the better life both bring, inequalities between races will disappear.

What we need, rather than sentimental sing-songs and an anguished search for something that’s already there, is simply effective policy that helps people who need help. There are millions of them – most of them don’t have jobs, and are poorly educated, but they want pretty much what the rest of us want, and some of us already have, which begins with a recognition of who they are, not what they look like, and opportunities to live lives of their choosing.

By virtue of our history – the ‘systemic crime against black South Africans’ of Mmusi Maimane’s phrasing this week – most deprived South Africans are black, and most beneficiaries of the kind of effective policies the IRR proposes will be black, too. But not because they are black. There is a difference.

It should be apparent that the real disjuncture in South Africa today is the divide between those who claim to want to fix what’s wrong, and those who actually have a practical plan to do so.

We might pause for a moment and think about the unpleasant echo of a statement that dates back nearly 70 years and really does take us into the heart of a backward and horrible time, just three years after the inauguration of apartheid. This statement of 28 May 1951 was made in Parliament by none other than Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, then Minister of Native Affairs, whose cold, undoubting intellect can be heard, still, in the plain wording of his reply to an unnamed detractor.

‘Does the honourable member believe for one single moment,’ Verwoerd parried, ‘that in the Native mind there is no such thing as a national consciousness? Of course every Native has the consciousness that he is a Native.’

Over the decades that followed, millions of people paid a heavy penalty for the application of this thinking in policy and regulation founded on the ‘relevance’ of race. Millions, of course, are still paying the price, for the legacy is still with us.

How, ironic, then, that in 2019, people who think themselves progressive, who claim to know the mind of black people, and, immodestly enough, reserve for themselves the unearned privilege of speaking for them all, should mimic the core idea that delivered the very consequences whose cost still weighs so heavily on society today.

Verwoerd’s was a view that was justifiably mocked and loathed. Liberals opposed it then, and they oppose it still.

Morris is head of media at the IRR.

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