Yesterday marked the 45th anniversary of the start of the Soweto Revolt. Back then, on 16th June 1976, black South Africans faced pervasive racial discrimination in education, employment, home ownership, land purchases, and many other spheres. Yet already racial attitudes and policies were changing substantially – a process to which the upsurge gave further impetus. 

By the time of yesterday’s commemoration, black majority rule had been in place for close on three decades. And yet the ANC and its socialist allies, along with many in the media, academia and civil society, continue to pretend that racism is still the key problem confronting the country. 

Apartheid-era reforms

The common wisdom for most of the apartheid period was that the National Party (NP) government was unable to reform and would have to be overthrown through violent revolution. History shows the opposite, however.

By the end of the 1960s, it was obvious that the white population was too small to meet the needs of the growing economy. With job reservation crumbling in any event, prime minister John Vorster yielded further to business pressure in 1973 by promising that his government would no longer stand in the way of blacks moving into higher jobs. This resulted in considerable advances for black people and a narrowing of racial inequality.

Rising demand for black skills also resulted in better funding and other reforms to black education. During the 1970s and 1980s, this was followed by measures to end ‘petty’ apartheid, unequal trade union rights, restrictions on black home ownership, influx control, ‘group areas’ segregation, and the entire ideology of separate development through the supposedly ‘independent’ homelands.

In the early 1990s, what remained of the apartheid edifice was dismantled through the unbanning of the ANC and its allies, the repeal of the notorious Land Acts, and the start of constitutional negotiations for a new political order. Also crucial was a March 1992 referendum in which two-thirds of whites voted to give up political power. This paved the way for the transition to majority rule in April 1994, under a (short-lived) government of national unity.

A strong commitment to non-racialism

One of the most important NP reforms in the early 1990s was the repeal in June 1991 of the Population Registration Act of 1950. This was the legislation under which all South Africans had been subjected to a noxious system of race classification widely condemned across the country and the world. 

The strong demand in South Africa, as in the United States (US) in the 1960s, was for a non-racial system of government. Under this new order, people would no longer be judged by the colour of their skin but rather by ‘the content of their character’, as Martin Luther King Jnr had memorably said.

‘Non-racialism’ of this kind was identified as a founding value of the new South Africa in the very first section of the country’s Constitution. Moreover, when that Constitution was adopted in Parliament in 1996, Thabo Mbeki, then deputy president, took pains to hail its commitment to non-racialism in his celebrated ‘I am an African’ speech.

In this address, Mr Mbeki famously stated: ‘The Constitution whose adoption we celebrate constitutes an unequivocal statement that we refuse to accept that our Africanness shall be defined by our race, colour, gender, or historical origins. It is a firm assertion made by ourselves that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.’

The betrayal of the non-racial ideal

However, this address was soon followed by Mr Mbeki’s ‘two-nations’ speech in 1998. This time he emphasised the racial divide, saying: ‘We therefore make bold to say that South Africa is a country of two nations. One of these nations is white [and] relatively prosperous… The second and larger nation of South Africa is black and poor… We are not one nation, but two nations. And neither are we becoming one nation.’

This speech set the scene for the steady re-racialisation of the Statute Book via the adoption of a host of race-based laws, including the Employment Equity (EE) Act of 1998 and the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) Act of 2003.

The ANC claimed that the EE Act, in particular, was vital to counter the racism preventing black advancement in the workplace. Yet in 1997, before the statute was adopted, 90% of the 150 large employers surveyed by a human resources consultancy, FSA-Contact, had voluntary affirmative action programmes in place under which black representation in senior management was set to increase from 5% in 1995 to 12% in 1998 and 21% in 2001. 

In addition, 63% of employers were experiencing the ‘poaching’ of their black managers by firms willing to pay substantial premiums to entice them away. This level of poaching testified to an enormous unmet demand for black managers in the private sector, rather than a racist refusal to employ or promote them. 

The EE Act was nevertheless enacted, so bringing back the racial classification system the NP government had abolished in 1991. Under EE regulations, people are expected to classify themselves ‘voluntarily’ into the apartheid-era categories of ‘African’, ‘coloured’, ‘Indian’ and ‘white’. But if employees provide ‘inaccurate information’ or decline to classify themselves at all, employers must take over the racial classification task – using for this purpose ‘reliable historical and existing data’, whatever that may mean. 

A government committed to state control in every sphere has thus effectively privatised the distasteful classification exercise on which its entire edifice of race-based laws depends. 

Racism as the country’s core problem

To justify its race-based laws, the ANC continually asserts that racism is South Africa’s core problem – and that any failure to accept this analysis and join in the ruling party’s ‘struggle’ against racism is racist in itself. This stance has made it deeply intolerant of people who take a different view: even when those people comprise a majority of black South Africans.

This reality came sharply to the fore in 2001, when the IRR first commissioned a representative opinion poll on issues relevant to race. In the first question put to respondents, people were asked to identify what they saw as the two most serious problems still unresolved since 1994. No prompting was provided and people could choose any issue that came to mind. 

In response, roughly 58% of black interviewees identified unemployment as such a problem, while 38% highlighted crime and violence. By contrast, only 5% flagged racism as a key unresolved issue. 

Essop Pahad, minister in the presidency in the first Thabo Mbeki administration, was indignant. He dismissed the IRR’s findings as ‘foolish’ and claimed that racism was the cause of unemployment. But it is simplistic and absurd to blame racism for pressing socio-economic problems that clearly have other causes.

The crisis of youth unemployment 

The current jobless rate among youths aged 15 to 24 stands at a staggering 75% on the expanded definition that includes those not actively seeking work. Among young people aged 15 to 34, more than half (51%) are unemployed. The 6.8 million young people unable to find jobs make up some 60% of the 11.4 million South Africans now unemployed and destitute. 

This crisis has very little to do with racism, especially after 27 years of ANC (mis)rule. Instead, it stems largely from bad governance, worse policies, and the persistent failures of the education system.

South Africa spends more than 6% of GDP on education – more than many other countries can afford – but gets little bang for its extensive buck. Instead, fewer than 40% of the pupils who start school in Grade 1 manage to pass their matric exams, while only 14% do so with marks good enough to go to university. A mere 4% get marks of 50% or more for matric maths.  

The more than 60% of youngsters who leave school without even a matric are often functionally illiterate and innumerate. They then confront an economy made largely ‘uninvestable’ by persistent nationalisation threats – and further bedevilled by destructive loadshedding, deteriorating infrastructure, disintegrating local administration, and escalating corruption. 

On top of all these barriers to growth comes coercive labour legislation. These laws are particularly destructive to unemployed youth because they push starting salaries up to levels exceeding their productivity – and so price them right out of the labour market.   

These obstacles to upward mobility have nothing to do with racism. Most are instead the product of the ANC’s National Democratic Revolution (NDR), under which the ruling party plans to weaken the capitalist economy so severely that it can in time be pushed towards socialism and then communism.

Most ordinary South Africans have little understanding of the NDR because the media and other commentators generally decline to deal with it or acknowledge its enormous impact. Most people do, however, see through the ANC’s distortions on racism. 

This is evident from comprehensive IRR opinion polls conducted not only in 2001, as earlier noted, but also in every year from 2015 to 2020. The most recent poll took place in November and December 2020 – and its results show broadly the same pattern as before.

The view from the street

The data gathered from the IRR’s 2020 field survey shows that race relations remain generally positive – and far better than the ANC, the EFF, and many in the media commonly assert. There has nevertheless been a slippage in some spheres that merits careful consideration and a shift away from racially polarising rhetoric and policy.

One of the most positive outcomes is that 81% of the black respondents interviewed in 2020 said they had not personally experienced any form of racism in the past five years. In addition, only 3% of black people identified racism as one of the most serious unresolved problems in the country since 1994. Instead, most black respondents saw the key outstanding challenges as unemployment (56%), crime (18%), housing (17%) and corruption (16%).

Also encouraging is the finding that 73% of black people believe that ‘with better education and more jobs, inequality between the races will steadily disappear’. In addition, 71% agree that ‘the different races need each other for progress and there should be equal opportunity for all’. 

On the other hand, only 43% of black respondents (down from 50% in 2019) think race relations have improved since 1994.  In addition, the proportion of black people who believe politicians are exaggerating the problems posed by racism and colonialism dropped from 60% in 2019 to 52% in 2020.  This suggests that political rhetoric around racism may be having more of an impact on popular perceptions than it did in earlier years.

Particularly striking – but not at all surprising – is the fact that joblessness has been flagged as the main concern of most South Africans in all seven of the IRR’s field surveys, going back to 2001. Unemployment is the key factor in persistent poverty and (diminishing) inter-racial inequality. It is also the main reason for the widening gap between the relatively small and politically connected black elite that benefits from EE and BEE – and the roughly 10 million black people who are jobless and often too discouraged to keep up the fruitless search for work. 

Forty-five years after the start of the Soweto Revolt, racism is not what is betraying the hopes of millions of black youths. Rather, it is pervasive joblessness born of bad schooling and 27 years of ever more damaging NDR interventions.

It is time to recognise that racism is not the problem. (Find out more here.) And that the race-based laws being used to advance the NDR are no solution – but rather a key reason for accelerating inequality and persistent economic decline.

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