A rather unpleasant effect of our hyper-consciousness to race is that even ideas and policies most people don’t agree with are given lots of room to breathe when couched in explicitly racial language.

Part of me understands why this is the case because for some older people, who lived through some of the more gruesome aspects of Apartheid, there will be a dormant racial mistrust that is easily awoken at the slightest hint of anything that is racist or can be construed as racist; this can sometimes lead to a comical amount of cognitive dissonance.

I am reminded of the time my mother met my older brother’s white former girlfriend from Canada. My mother kept asking if her parents knew my brother was black and if they were really okay with her dating him. This is the same mother who shipped me off to a private boarding school six hours away from home, when I was seven, knowing full well the only black people I would interact with regularly were the women working in laundry for the matron, or those who cooked in the kitchens. She would also drop me off at a white friend’s house during school holidays and on more than one occasion would say, “Ngabelungu abalungileyo” (they are good and proper white people) of my friend’s parents, even while at other times expressing a belief about white people being racist.

Race is a strange, old, muddled thing in this country. It is unfortunate that people cannot be honest enough to admit that many of us suffer cognitive dissonance and peculiar sensitivities over it, which at times are unhelpful and stop us from seeing the contradictory psycho-social forces and nuances that drive sentiment in this country. It is everywhere, whether people like to admit it or not.

This was illustrated to me when a white friend of mine asked me to be best man at his wedding, but kept reminding me before the day and about my speech and in his own words that ‘I have old family members coming to my wedding, some of whom who still think Apartheid was a good idea, please keep that in mind’.

But I digress.

My point is really that on closer examination many of the policies of the EFF and, indeed the ANC, are not particularly popular outside of being couched in very racial language. 

State custodianship of land and EWC

One of the key policies of the EFF is state custodianship of all land. This is a deeply Marxist idea which has been welded to legitimate debates about land reform and land use policy in cities. It would cause havoc in rural areas which have entrenched systems and processes of how people acquire land. It would open up avenues for corrupt local officials to undermine and overrule traditional authorities which many people rely on to get inxiwa (their own parcel of land which they will build her home on and retire after usually working in the cities). 

Even the seeming popularity of Expropriation without Compensation in some quarters is mostly down to the belief that it is white people whose land will be expropriated. Once you explain to people their land could be expropriated too for the so-called “greater good” then concerns about secure property rights will be voiced. Until there is a sensible resolution to the so-called land question that does not undermine secure property rights, there will be profound cognitive dissonance around land issues in this country, even as most people believe in secure property rights and land tenure whether through the law or through customary and traditional means. Very few people are sympathetic to land invasions and people who have no respect for law and order, and other people’s rights.

People only use government services when they cannot afford private ones

According to research by the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC), at least 80% of schools in this country are dysfunctional -most of those schools largely serve black and coloured learners. It makes sense then that when parents of colour move into the middle class they choose to enroll their children in former Model C schools (which in reality are semi-private) and low-fee independent schools. Even as early as 2013, a study by the University of Cape Town’s Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing found that 65% of the black middle class were sending their children to low-fee private schools or former Model C schools. In 2016 fully 10% of schools in Gauteng (where the black middle class is strongest) were low-fee independent schools, almost double the national figure.

With all of this in mind it beggars belief that the ruling party still pushes the idea that the fundamental issue in South African education is a resource one, rather than a corrupt cabal of teacher unions protecting awful and absentee teachers, and the inefficient use of resources by the education bureaucracy. 

According to Stellenbosch University education researcher Nic Spaull, the government spends an average of close to R1 600 per month, per pupil in the education system. This  number compares favourably to fees at low-cost  private schools. It thus boggles the mind that the push by the Institute of Race Relations for a school voucher system is not heeded, even as parents fundamentally vote for it with their own money by sending their children to low-fee private schools. A voucher system would be more efficient for under-pressure, middle-class families.

Perhaps the most illustrative case of cognitive dissonance is what happened at Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke where a teacher and the school were accused of racism. The point missed in all the furore was that black parents chose to send their children to an Afrikaans-medium school far away from home where government schools which are much closer exist. Those parents did that even as they mistrust white people.

I don’t know whether the accusations of racism around the country pertaining to schools have any merit because I don’t have children and I am not a teacher, but what is instructive to me is that parents are willing to entrust their children into the hands of people they either suspect are racist or fully believe are racist, because they know government schools near them are so terrible.

In the healthcare system we can see how the government is pursuing the National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme, even as stories of public healthcare failure continue to horrify the public. Even here it is instructive that private healthcare is innovating in ways to make private care more accessible and affordable, whether through domestic worker health insurance, prepaid healthcare vouchers or low-cost options such as those offered by Tyme Health. Even black-owned operators such as Quali Health, which offer all-inclusive pricing for doctor visits, have seen exponential growth in townships.

All this is to say that while the government pursues ever more statist intervention and control of our lives, the reality on the ground is that people want services delivered by private firms who are innovating to create more affordable options.

Why shouldn’t the country explore a framework of healthcare vouchers mixed with hospital plans, (i.e. government funding and private sector delivery similar to the Swiss model) as an alternative to what will be an enormously expensive NHI?

Usually, I have found any suggestion of such an alternative is met with criticism of it being an idea to “serve white interests” (whatever that means) and that trigger is usually enough to stymie any conversation or debate. This while  people of colour show, through their buying power, that they would prefer what private healthcare brings to the table.

Even racism itself

I think South Africans make the mistake of either being hyper-conscious of race or pretending race consciousness does not exist. It does. I have been to enough bachelor parties, dinner parties, birthdays, and weddings where I was either the only black person or one of the few to know it exists within every community in this country.

It seems to me that the overarching question that stands before us, that could help untangle the cognitive dissonance, is how exactly do you build a South Africa where people feel like they have fair access to what will keep them healthy, happy and prosperous? The so-called social contract, if you will.

It seems a healthcare and education system where people get equal vouchers but special considerations are given to indigent and struggling communities regardless of race, is a good start. Hiring people in the civil service on the basis of suitability and merit is another (Chris Pappas has shown race is not a hindrance if you perform your job properly with an understanding of your local context).

Dealing with issues around land use policy in cities is another, as urbanisation continues apace, with more and more people moving to cities like Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Cape Town. This is even as the infrastructure and land demands cannot handle the number of migrants. Not getting a handle on this will open up our cities to the demons of cognitive dissonance (land invasions and deeply divisive rhetoric aimed at cheap political points scoring) and will make all of us miserable.

What is often thought of as racism in this country can be boiled down to the bugbears of a poorly designed system with poor policies and not well-thought-out implementation.

Classically liberal ideas are more popular than people think.

The views of the writer are not necessarily those of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

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Sindile Vabaza is an avid writer and an aspiring economist.