Every other day you can expect to find a commentator, an activist or a politician confidently asserting that what South Africa needs most and hasn’t come near to obtaining is the defeat of racial privilege, and all that is broadly implied by the term.
Bound up in this amalgam of things is the charge that the ‘privileged’, who might consider themselves congenitally superior, don’t care enough to examine themselves, or to abandon the racial hocus pocus that is the farcical source of supremacist ideas, or to do enough to make a difference.
These sentiments, or failings, might be true of some (and is certainly true of all societies), but it’s doubtful they come anywhere near being South Africa’s most pressing challenge.
Only this week, writing in his personal capacity on Politicsweb, civil servant Mugabe Ratshikuni (The psyche of whites) drew on his current reading – Black Sacrifice: The Sinking of the S.S Mendi 1917, by the late Rev. Dr. Sandi Baai – to address what he describes as the ‘unwanted pillar on which South Africa has been built, white superiority’.
The sinking of the Mendi after a collision with another vessel in the English Channel in the early hours of 21 February 1917 claimed the lives of more than 620 of the 823 officers and men of the last – the 5th Battalion – of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) to do service in France and on the Western Front, and 30 of the ship’s crew. It also created a lasting symbol of the largely unacknowledged and unrewarded sacrifices of black soldiers who, as Ratshikuni puts it, had left hearth and home ‘to defend an empire that did not value them’.
The record might be shaming, but, in seeking to explore that ‘unwanted pillar … (of) white superiority’, Ratshikuni goes on to write: ‘Rev. Dr. Baai best captures it when he says, “the notion that the blacks were inferior is old and will not disappear today or tomorrow, it being firmly rooted in the political and social practice of white South African society”.’
For Ratshikuni – and, judging by much of our public conversation, many thousands of others – this is persuasive. ‘We changed the laws and built new institutions post 1994,’ Ratshikuni writes, ‘but up to this day we still haven’t found a way to deal with the unacknowledged black sacrifice and white superiority conundrum. This is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to social cohesion and a true sense of nationhood for South Africa. Until we deal with this phenomenon, we are not likely to go anywhere together as a people.’
If ‘a true sense of nationhood’ is difficult to measure or quantify, the hard data on the actual state of the nation is eloquent in identifying the ‘biggest stumbling blocks’ we face in satisfying the widely shared aspiration to be a fairer, prospering and successful country.
Perversely, the data can be read as a sketch of racial disparity that seems only to confirm Ratshikuni’s ‘psyche of whites’ thesis. But if the data is a reflection of how we live, it is not on its own an explanation.
And this is the rub in 2020, 26 years after we ‘changed the laws and built new institutions post 1994’, as Ratshikuni puts it.
The democratic project has brought immense benefits not only to the millions of people cheated of dignity, rights and opportunities by apartheid, but also to those who benefited.
But the measurable deficiencies are plain. They are captured in the Quality of Life (QOLI) Index crafted by the Centre for Risk Analysis at the Institute of Race Relations in 2017 to begin to benchmark South Africa’s progress in improving the quality of life of its residents, and to draw comparisons between provinces and the four race groups.
The index is based on ten weighted indicators that are indicative of the quality of life of a person or household. Each indicator has been translated into a score of between 0 and 10. A score closer to 0 indicates poor performance, while a score closer to 10 indicates better performance.
The indicators are 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, electricity for cooking, and a basic sanitation facility; irregular or no waste removal, medical aid coverage and the murder rate.
The first index captured 2015/16 data. The second, published in November last year, captures 2018 data.
Unsurprisingly (and it points to the desire among many – if not most – South Africans, highlighted in IRR surveys in recent years, for the advantages of a middle-class life in a city), both surveys show that more urbanised provinces demonstrate a significantly higher quality of life than largely rural ones.
In both indexes, Gauteng and the Western Cape are tied as the provinces with the best quality of life – each with a score of 6.4. (The Western Cape ranks in both as the best-performing province in most indicators, but is weighed down significantly by its high murder rate.) The national average in the 2017 index was 5.6, improving marginally in the second index to 5.7
In the 2017 index, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape demonstrated the worst quality of life, each with a score of 5.0. In the 2019 index, Limpopo emerged as having the worst quality of life, with its score dropping slightly to 4.9.
Examining the scores by race, there are slight variations in the numbers for some of the indicators between the 2017 index and the one from last year – but the picture is stark: in both, white South Africans emerge with the highest quality-of-life score of 8.1 (when the murder data, not measurable by race but by province, is excluded) and 7.9 (when a nationally averaged murder rate was used). Outcomes were worst for black South Africans, with index scores in 2017 of 5.2 and 5.4 respectively, and 5.3 and 5.4 last year.
Indicators in which white South Africans had the best outcomes in both indexes include the matric pass rate, unemployment, expenditure exceeding R10 000 per month, mortgaged houses, waste removal, medical aid coverage and access to a basic sanitation facility. The outcomes were worst for black people on all indicators.
What is easily overlooked is that the deficiencies evident in these figures count as a cost to all South Africans, for they undermine the national interest, which is racially indivisible.
The question is, is the psyche of white South Africans in any sense a factor?
By contrast, Ratshikuni concludes his article by saying: ‘So, until we deal with this white psyche, the Rainbow Nation will remain a pipe dream.’
He goes on: ‘To bring this up, is not to seek to fuel racial tension but rather to embrace the principle highlighted by the brilliant 20th century thinker, Reinhold Niebuhr when he said, “if man does not acknowledge his status as creator, his freedom over the historical flux, his right and duty to challenge the inherited traditions of the community, his obligation to exercise discriminate judgement in re-arranging or reconstructing any scheme of togetherness which has been faulty in providing justice, he will merely become the victim of the past which accentuates its vices when it is studiedly preserved into the present.”’
Our mindset, our psyche, is not insignificant; how we define for ourselves our own citizenship and what it means to be South African has effects.
But it is obvious from the material conditions of our lives that our psychic make-up is not the stumbling block to a brighter future.
The stumbling block is the absence of policy reform capable of stimulating the economy, of measures to affirm rather than undermine property rights, of empowerment initiatives that address real disadvantage in order to free the many still hobbled by the burdens of the past, rather than merely rewarding an elite few on the grounds of their race, and of administrative effectiveness and innovation in the running of schools, municipalities, hospitals and other key institutions of public service, among them the national power generator, Eskom.
Until we deal with these, a better future really is a pipe dream.
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