The last week has been tumultuous for the pharmacy chain Dis-Chem.

It began with a confidential letter to staff (which was promptly leaked), chastising them for not going above and beyond the call to implement racial job reservation, graduating to Dis-Chem defending their stance publicly, and then swiftly apologising for the fact that people found out about it.

Far from abandoning the thinking that went into their ‘moratorium’ on white promotions and appointments, Dis-Chem is simply so sorry that this moratorium got into the public’s hands without being reworded into polite corporate speak.

If CEO Ivan Saltzman had known his letter would be leaked, he and his PR department might have made the following changes:

‘… a few appointments other than white don’t cut it’ would have become ‘Dis-Chem is committed to its employee profile reflecting its customer profile. We are a community pharmacy.’

‘It’s the ratio between white and black that counts’ would have become ‘Dis-Chem makes meritorious appointments that take the imperative of transformation into account.’

‘A moratorium is placed on the appointment of white individuals. This includes external appointment and internal promotions’ would have become ‘Dis-Chem has begun a review of its human resource policies to ensure diversity, inclusion, and equity (DIE) standards are implemented.’

‘The achievement of set Employment Equity targets … will form a large part of your KPA’s’ would have become ‘Dis-Chem rewards staff who are socially conscious and aware of the necessity of redress in our country.’

‘… these are harsh measures and necessary if we are to remain profitable and to avoid a potential fine of 10% of turnover which would cripple the business’ would have become ‘Dis-Chem works closely with our partners in government to set realistic employment equity targets and remains committed to achieving these desirable goals.’

Much of this language was seen in the company’s communication after the initial letter. What is evident is that corporate racism has lost its crudeness. There is a whole dictionary of new and redefined terms and phrases available to those who wish to remain racist but also wish to remain part of polite company.

Today versus back then

Indeed, neither in the letter, the public defence, nor in the public apology, do Saltzman or Dis-Chem indicate any kind of objection or even just reluctance to enforce racial policy. In the defence, Dis-Chem even referred to the so-called ‘imperative’ of what it conceives of as ‘transformation’. 

There was no hint of remorse or shame, simply annoyance that they will now lose customers because, in a moment of absentmindedness, Saltzman did not utilise the DIE dictionary. 

Compare this to Pick n Pay owner Raymond Ackerman, who received the Order of the Baobab in Silver. Explaining why Ackerman received the award, the South African government wrote on its website:

‘[Ackerman] also abolished race classification on the company’s human resources payroll. He always appointed the right person to the position regardless of skin colour. Ackerman fought constantly against the Group Areas Act, stating that it was unjust, unfair and inhumane.’ 

Even though racial job reservation was legislated by the Apartheid government, Ackerman (not to mention others, like Anton Rupert) was perfectly comfortable publicly expressing his reluctance to abide by it. Even though it is likely that Ackerman, Rupert, and others complied to varying degrees with these evil policies, they did not try to make it seem like they enjoyed it, quite unlike contemporary corporate South Africa which rejects the very notion that they are doing anything wrong.

Inherently unjust law

But some even openly refused to abide by inherently unjust law.

In South Africa’s Silent Revolution (1990), former IRR CEO, the late John Kane-Berman, wrote that by the end of the 1970s, so-called white, primarily English, universities admitted black students without, as was required by law, acquiring the government’s permission.

In 1978, the Port Elizabeth technical college abandoned the application of government’s racial policy. This rejection was copied in 1986 by various other technical colleges which formally and openly declined to apply the law as written.

From 1976 various white church schools decided to admit black pupils, despite government directly threatening to withdraw their registration.

In the late 1970s through the 1980s, real estate developers and estate agents in urban areas began selling and renting homes to black and non-white South Africans in flagrant contravention of group areas laws.

Make racism crude and unacceptable again

In these instances of civil disobedience, the government did not take serious punitive action against the businesses and South Africans who were transparently violating the law. 

This was because South Africans indicated their rejection of race law. It was bad for business, evil, and arbitrary. There was a growing social repugnance towards legislated racism, and many corporates and civil society formations regarded themselves as servants of their customers (as a way to gain profit) and the public, not servants of the political elite. 

South Africa seems to have fundamentally lost sight of this today, despite the fact that non-racialism is a fundamental written constitutional norm.

It should never have been conceivable for anyone in Dis-Chem to write the moratorium letter, much less defend it publicly and then, in the subsequent apology, omit to condemn racialised public policy. Far from condemnation, they and many other corporates across the country have bought into racism wholesale, provided the crudeness is excised by careful use of the DIE dictionary.

Constitutionalism requires an independent, but more importantly independently thinking, civil society to work. If constitutionalism is taken simply to mean that government balances out power with itself, it is stillborn. Business and non-profit organisations, religious groups, and the academy all have a constitutional obligation to organise themselves and act as checks and balances on one another and on the power of government. They must not make themselves guilty of playing political games, especially not if it comes at the direct expense of the dignity and liberty of ordinary people.

South African corporates must rediscover their independence, and certainly their backbone.

[Image: Steve Buissinne from Pixabay]

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Martin van Staden is the Head of Policy at the Free Market Foundation and former Deputy Head of Policy Research at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). Martin also serves as the Editor of the IRR’s History Project and its Race Law Project, and is an advisor to the Free Speech Union SA. He is pursuing a doctorate in law at the University of Pretoria. For more information visit