A common objection to the argument for merit – in the job market, business, the public service, the selection of sports teams, entrance to university and wherever else people hope to be given a chance of proving themselves – is that it’s simply a way of preferring the advantaged, which, in South Africa, is read to mean ‘white’.

And that’s not actually far off the mark. But the objection reinforces rather than undermines the virtue of merit itself, and vividly exposes what South Africa is doing wrong in its avowed effort to ‘transform’ itself.

Merit is not the problem. The problem is persistent and widespread disadvantage that undermines the potential merit-worthiness of so many millions, and which current policy is doing little to overcome.

Yet, where this underscores the importance of tackling disadvantage directly and with much greater effect than has been achieved since 1994, it also means that the argument about merit, if it hopes to gain credence, has to be advanced with greater care and intellectual rigour than many of its devotees might suppose.

These problems were recently subjected to a penetrating analysis by former IRR chief operations officer Gwen Ngwenya – who left last year to develop policy in the Democratic Alliance, resigned from the party early this year, and has just returned.

Published on Politicsweb as ‘The Demerits of Race’, her contribution was in fact a speech to the Economic Association of Namibia in Windhoek on 7 November. The theme, which she pointed out was not chosen by her, was Policy without race: The benefits of a meritocratic society.

It makes for compelling reading.

Ngwenya begins by reminding readers that we live in a world ‘where almost everything is being measured – and, once measured, the relative position of things is known’; the best places to live, the cheapest, the freest, the cleanest, and the happiest. And yet, she writes, despite this ‘relentless clamour to be at the top, merit is a contested idea’.

If that didn’t mean it was a ‘useless’ idea, it did mean that proponents of meritocracy ‘must take seriously the charges levelled against it … (or) risk its becoming so distorted, divisive, and acrimonious a concept that it is snuffed out completely’.

The core of the problem is that ‘(too) many who profess to care about meritocracy, exhibit no concern at all for the process of becoming meritorious’, leaving many to ‘recoil from the idea’.

On the notion of a university, by way of example, considering enrolment on merit, Ngwenya argues that it would be necessary to ‘be concerned … that children with ability are not undermined by a poor education system, (or) who cannot afford to participate in extra-curricular activity… (or lack) the social capital to have their character affirmed by a person of good social standing’.

‘In other words, we must be conscious of who is afforded the opportunity to display merit in the first place.’

She goes on: ‘Those with resources find it easier to display merit – they hire tutors experienced at preparing for tests, they demonstrate a concern for the community as founders of charities not beneficiaries of them, and their problem is not finding a person to vouch for their work ethic but deciding who among their options would impress a potential employer most.’

Ngwenya observes: ‘Many proponents of merit get indignant because they feel that they did not receive handouts, they got to where they are through merit. But those who find it difficult to display their merit can all too easily see how money and connections buy merit even when they no longer buy jobs directly.’

These are not good reasons to ‘dispense with merit’, however.

‘Just because life is unfair does not mean the pursuit of excellence is unimportant. That pursuit drives competition, and competition drives further excellence – both of which are integral to advancement and innovation.’

But these challenges mean ‘that we must be as committed to nurturing and uncovering (merit) as we are to wielding it. Meritocracy will continue to suffer a crisis of legitimacy if we don’t.’

Merit, after all, was ‘not a tide which lifts all, even when it lifts many, and must be accompanied with clarity about how we will bring along those that might otherwise be left behind’.

‘Meritocracy punches with its weak hand when the force of its argument comes from a moralising notion of just deserts. It punches hardest when it argues for the pursuit of excellence for the benefit of all.’

Societies which nurtured and attracted the best and brightest ‘are heavily geared for success, but they also have the most potential to shield people from the vagaries of chance (and) carry the hope not of rewarding the deserving … but of lifting overall wellbeing.’

A critical point, easily overlooked, is Ngwenya’s asserting that ‘it is worth mentioning that none of this is to suggest … that black people are incapable of merit-based appointments’.

‘If we truly believe that talent is not racially determined, then merit should not be considered an inherently racially exclusive notion. It strikes me that a true believer in the random and non-racial distribution of ability would have no fear about the success of black people in a merit-based society.’

Where race-based policy would ‘likely … frustrate attempts to eliminate discrimination’, and affirm the ‘harmful stereotype that black people are less competent’, then ‘compromising the process of merit-based appointments results precisely in the reinforcing of that stereotype not its rebuttal’.

And the ‘gulf’ of socioeconomic differences which were ‘responsible for keeping people of different races in different schools, in different neighbourhoods, and exposes them to different sporting and cultural opportunities’ had no hope of being closed by ‘a preferential selection policy’.

‘We can go a long way towards changing stereotypes by decoupling skin colour from wealth, interests, and beliefs. And the surest way to do that is to close the socioeconomic gap which contributes to vastly different life experiences. Education, economic growth, and cultural diffusion will do more for tackling discrimination than race preference policy.’

It is not wishful thinking to suggest that the debate about creating a better South Africa is shifting towards the idea that dwelling on the skin colour of poverty does little to overcome its effects. Or the idea that dwelling on skin colour at all is rational or useful to anyone but those whom Ngwenya excoriates as ‘so-called intellectuals and politicians who have made a business of race and profit from it’.

They have thrived these past 25 years, while the poor have been left to spectate.

But what Ngwenya does make clear is that making a strong case for an alternative to race-based affirmation or empowerment depends on its demonstrable benefit to those who ‘find it difficult to display their merit’, through no fault of their own.

It is the argument at the heart of the IRR’s Economic Empowerment for the Disadvantaged (EED) model, which dispenses with the racial focus of empowerment – which only takes attention away from the real problem – and focuses on practical steps to overcome disadvantage itself.

Ngwenya provides a crisp instance of the difference between the two approaches in what she describes as a ‘practical example that demonstrates how preferential selection does not ameliorate the relevant disadvantage’.

The example is of a matriculant who scores a low grade in accounting, applies for a place open to students who excelled in accounting, and is selected ‘because she is black and because it is felt that she can be brought up to speed’.

‘If she performed poorly because her school does not adequately prepare its learners, after preferential selection she is still less prepared than those she jumped in the “queue”. Furthermore, the next crop of learners at the same school will continue to be ill-prepared by their teachers. Preferential selection based on race masks the fact that it does nothing to correct the actual source of disadvantage – in this case, a bad education.’

That’s surely persuasive.

Yet, Ngwenya cautions, winning the argument for the benefits of a meritocratic society ‘in the real world’ calls for conviction and demonstrable results.

‘The language of giving is more powerful than the language of taking,’ she writes, ‘and where race policy is entrenched, opposing it often sounds like you’re taking something away.’

The convincing alternative must show a ‘commitment to tackling disadvantage and to ensuring that connections and inheritance do not matter more than ability’.

Get that right, and society will follow.

‘I do believe that many people would prefer that their children receive a good education than for policy to recognise the colour of their skin,’ she writes.

‘Similarly, more people care about job and entrepreneurial opportunities than about racial recognition. More people will be content with reliable social and public services, than with lip service paid to racial solidarity.’

She concludes: ‘If policymakers and governments can bring these things within reach of the majority, they will not stop to ask us whether they are receiving opportunities as a black person or as a person in need.’

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IRR head of media Michael Morris was a newspaper journalist from 1979 to 2017, covering, among other things, the international campaign against apartheid, from London, and, as a political correspondent in Cape Town, South Africa’s transition to democracy. He has written three books, the last being Apartheid, An Illustrated History, and has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT. He writes a fortnightly column in Business Day.