South Africa’s return to the politics of race was heralded by the government’s acceptance of the then proposed Employment Equity Bill in 1998. This article was published at that telling juncture, in the May 1998 edition of Finance Week.

Cabinet’s acceptance of the proposed Employment Equity Bill this week brings South Africa back to race classification. It is a consequence of a continuing move towards race as a determining factor in our lives, a betrayal of the promise of 1994.

In a sense, the retreat to the politics of colour over the last four years has been a return to the “natural” state of South African politics; mobilisation based on race and life opportunity determined by it. For when the “new” South Africa was heralded by the April election of 1994, the promise was of a colour-blind society after centuries of governance based on racial imperatives. This would be the “rainbow people of God”. All would have equal rights and the state would strive to ensure that all had equal opportunity. The new Gauteng province would celebrate the mosaic of South Africa’s people in its motto “unity through diversity.” Exhortation after exhortation would be for a new patriotism, a new and inclusive South Africanism. It would not last long.

When the president of the Black Management Forum, Lot Ndlovu, in 1996 called for a return to race classification if this was necessary to secure black advancement, few took him seriously. Less than two years later, we reached that point. But it has been a steadily encroaching process. The outgoing National Party negotiators in constitutional talks had been prepared to surrender power on vague assurances of the security of employment of those holding jobs in the civil service and for a short-term “power-sharing” deal. They forgot even to have the word “freedom” included in the constitutional text, settling simply for an undefined “equality” (others would force the nod to liberty in the highest law in the land).

Crucially, they neglected to have racial discrimination outlawed – astonishingly, given the country’s racially divided past. They and their supporters have come to pay for these oversights as state policy has turned increasingly back to discrimination in a vein similar to that expressed by US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall when he said: “You guys have been practising discrimination for years. Now it’s our turn.”

Self-imposed strategies

First there were simply calls for self-imposed affirmative action strategies in the private sector to be speeded up, the implicit threat of state intervention never far from the surface. Then, using the need for rationalisation and incorporation of homeland bureaucracies, whites were encouraged and sometimes forced out of the civil service. State tendering procedures changed. No longer based merely on price and delivery considerations, they came to demand strong racial requirements in a form of crony capitalism.

Black “empowerment” deals were encouraged in the private sector and a skewed form of racial privatisation of State assets was undertaken as the price for government abandoning nationalisation.

Universities saw government intervention in the composition of their controlling bodies in a way last known three decades ago. Semi-private schools had their limited autonomy reduced and the national Minister of Education took on oversight for admissions and language policies. The idea of the virtue of the country’s demographic make-up being represented in every sphere of life has become an idol – and a silly one at that. So a curious “legitimacy” can be bestowed on an institution only by the Establishment if it is “representative”.

Quotas for players

Rugby federations sin if they are not controlled by blacks, don’t have the correct quotas of black players and don’t enjoy mass black support. Thus four teenagers were left out of South Africa’s judo squad for the World Youth Games this week because they were white. White school children from Mpumalanga on a swimming tour to KwaZulu-Natal are turned back home because of their skin colour. White netball players are dropped from the national team despite their prowess.

The military is truly loyal to the new dispensation only if “Old Guard” generals are forced out and leaders of the former guerrilla armies imposed in their stead. The ANC’s deputy leader calls for a similar cleansing of the judicial stables. Now it is “white control” of the Reserve Bank and of the media that is under fire. In other words, legitimacy in the new democracy depends on pigmentation, just as it did under the old order.

Given that voting patterns largely correlate to racial divisions, this represents not an attempt to create a new nation but a discarding of it. It is a form of nationalisation by stealth, a crass mass party patronage, which diminishes those outside its charmed circle and makes dependants of those it claims to liberate.

Nationalist at heart, racial at base

But perhaps it should come as no surprise. For the main political formations in South Africa have always been nationalist at heart and racial at base. Though the long ethnic chauvinism of the National Party and its consequent policies of discrimination against others are well known, less is spoken of the racial traditions of the ANC.

For that organisation came late to the fight for non-racialism. In the Fifties it organised as a purely black organisation, working alongside white, coloured and Indian congresses when the little Liberal Party had already opted to ditch racial considerations. Its Freedom Charter bowed to the idea of distinct “national groups”. It would agree to allow white membership only in 1969 and then only in its lower ranks. Whites would have to wait until 1985 before being allowed in the top decision-making structures. Its Eighties internal wing, the United Democratic Front, would follow a different route and emphasise non-racialism and the need for a South Africa in which colour played no part. Now, as in so many other things, the UDF component has been defeated and the old ANC has re-emerged – and nowhere more so than in the Employment Equity Bill, a piece of racial engineering that removes from the next white generations their chances of an equal contest in the private sphere.

Overseeing the new policy, which explicitly requires a new racial classification of citizens, is labour director-general Sipho Pityana. “The long and hard struggle for a non-racial South Africa was not a struggle for a raceless South Africa. In this world there will always be different races and the sexes will always be different. This is the way God made the world and it cannot be changed.” Water Affairs Minister Kader Asmal observes that “to pretend to be colour blind is to continue the pattern of inequality, lack of access and exclusion”. Parliamentary Speaker Frene Ginwala notes that “to deracialise, we have to focus on race.” Finally the parliamentary head of Independent Newspapers (and ANC supporter) Zubeida Jaffer says: “in a strange sort of way, apartheid acknowledged that racism was a reality in this society, making it less necessary for those who were discriminated against to have to prove it existed.”

Scapegoat needed

A government under which crime has soared, whose housing targets have vanished, which produces the worst matric results on record, and which oversees growing joblessness and internal division, needs a scapegoat. And never more so than when there is an election in the offing and so little to show for the past term of office. It’s time for wit gevaar.

So, instead of concentrating on taking South Africa into the global economy with radical reform, maximum freedom and innovation, a free labour market, mass privatisation and regional integration, it settles for the lazy option of social engineering. The bogeymen will be whites, counter-revolutionaries, neo-liberals, conservative liberals or just liberals. In any event, they are conflated to mean the same thing and are to blame for current and perceived woes. Instead of celebrations of liberty, there must be attempts to mould a society dependent on the largesse of State crony capitalism.

But the nature of the whole “transformation” project must remain undefined and its time span indeterminate. If not, then it could be held to account just like sets of housing targets. As Winnie Mandela says: “The new South Africa we all glibly talk about and yearn for will be experienced by our great-great grandchildren.” It is the stuff of perpetual revolution, of always guarding against an unseen enemy, of always sticking together.

But if the “enemy” no longer wants race discrimination and oppression and if he wishes simply to embrace colour-blindness and promote equal opportunity, then the definitions must be changed. Particularly so if one’s policies are offensive to the myths of one’s “struggle” and to the demands of a free world. Roll on the academics.

Wits molecular immunology professor William Makgoba warns that when racists are no longer such, “there is a danger of being silenced”. He quotes approvingly an argument that when racist discourse continues to oppress but no longer meets the main characteristics of social scientific definitions of “racism” (in other words, is no longer racist), then racism is simply hiding under a new bushel. Just as the National Party described the closing of tertiary opportunities to black students as the “extension of university education” and the forcing of black women to carry passes like their male counterparts as “abolition of passes,” so now racism becomes non-racism and non-racism becomes racism. A drive to enforce discrimination in the workplace becomes “employment equity”.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee

In a real sense, ruling parties often create opposition parties in their own image and South Africa can only wryly observe the retreat of the ANC into the abuse of race, language and ideas perpetrated on them by the National Party. Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

As with the National Party in its arrogant heyday all in the group to be affirmed are bought off. Those who won’t be are stigmatised as “hankering after the past” or “closet racists” or (most recently) “serving white supremacist interests”. So though many black intellectuals and activists of the anti-apartheid fight called for a country in which skin colour would play no part, they are silent now.

Indeed there has been something of an intellectual abdication by the black intelligentsia and a meek tolerance of the winds blowing by white South Africa. Where black newspaper columns debated methods of the “struggle’ in the past decade and the form a liberated South Africa should take, now there appears to be only a chorus of sameness, a clutching for the spoils of racial usurpation and often a mean-spirited exclusiveness within the body politic.

It is a world apart from the intense debates of black America, where intellectuals like Shelby Steele, Dinish D’Souza and Stephen Carter seriously question the results of decades-long attempts at racial equality through interference with free choice. Carter observes how presumptions of racial “representivity” form a never-ending process: “Once the search for people of colour is envisaged as a process for the inclusion of particular views those people are assumed to hold, there is no logical stopping point”.

Consequences for social harmony

But dangers lie not only in the longevity of race presumptions and experiments but also in their consequences for social harmony. And here many leading “analysts” and commentators have been remiss in failing to identify the dangers of turning away from the colour-blind ideal. White-dominated business tries to tinker with the social engineering project, hoping to alleviate its most extreme effects. But it goes along with its basic assumptions of the goodness of “representivity” in much the same way it could live comfortably with “separate development.”

And as English whites felt some guilt about the blunted aspirations of Afrikaners in the past, so organised (white) business now feels a blanket guilt over the lot of black South Africa. And even more so those in academia, journalism and the church. Their response is to assist in a new form of paternalism – that of race preference and entitlement – and to help implement even greater dependence on the State of people who have been ruthlessly denied the opportunity to depend on themselves and enjoy freedom in the past. Many of those pushing for the new racism probably enjoy the moral satisfaction this “helping” gives them. As Steele puts it: “Nothing diminishes blacks more than this sort of guilt in a white which, in my mind, amounts to a form of moral colonialism”.

But this colonialism is not a means to an end. It will be resuscitated repeatedly for cheap political ends and generate suspicion among races on every front. It will create disincentives to employment, run right across the logic of free enterprise and fatally undermine what could be a really free society.

It is a betrayal of the colour-blind South Africa, never really known in our history and barely glimpsed four years ago.

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