In his weekly letter to the nation on Monday morning, President Cyril Ramaphosa called on South Africans to embrace the true spirit of non-racialism, without abandoning the need for redress for those historically excluded by past discrimination.
He said that South Africa’s approach to nation-building was not the product of negotiated settlement, which many critics of constitutional South Africa have labelled as being a “sellout”.
Rather, said the president, it was a “fundamental pillar”.
Later in his letter he touched on the recent controversy around the appointment of a white male to head up the highly indebted state power utility, Eskom. Without naming the case, he made it clear that white men should not be excluded from leadership roles in the country, though South Africans needed to remain committed to appointing more black men and women into management in both the public and private sectors.
He said his meeting with the leadership of the Black Business Council last week had seen “issues of transformation discussed”, no doubt a reference to the Eskom leadership debate.
“I took the opportunity to inform them about government’s commitment to transformation and non-racialism. Of all the achievements since the advent of democracy in 1994, perhaps our most important is our sustained and unwavering commitment to transformation and non-racialism.
“When we embarked upon this journey, we aimed, in the words of our Constitution, ‘to heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights’.
“We knew that we had to build a truly united nation, not merely to replace domination by one with domination by another.
“Non-racialism is not the product of a negotiated compromise, but is a fundamental pillar of the new society we are building. It is only through advancing non-racialism that we will be able to reconstruct the fabric of our society and narrow social and economic divisions and build a new democratic society from the ashes of the old that had destroyed the potential of our country. It is a principle we will not abandon.
“We know too well what happened when race was used to exclude the majority of South Africans, and we must actively guard against the return of attitudes that presume the colour of one’s skin should confer either privilege or disadvantage.
This is not to say that race can and should be ignored. Our Constitution affirms that we are a nation of diverse cultures, faiths and languages – and protects the right to self-expression and self-identification.”
He added, though, that government also recognised the “unfinished business” of nation-building: overcoming the deep divisions that apartheid created in our society.
“That is why redress continues to be a crucial pillar of government policy, whether it is in land reform, employment equity or in economic transformation.
“Although we have come a long way since 1994, the occasional expressions of racial and ethnic chauvinism shows that many in our society have yet to overcome what Joe Slovo once termed the ‘psychological barrier’ towards true non-racialism.
“Whether it is reflected in the internal dynamics of political parties, in the workplace, or outwardly expressed on the letter pages of newspapers, one finds a reluctance on the part of some to accept that Africans, whites, Indians and coloureds all have an equal right to a seat at the table of our society.”
He said the country should not allow itself to be “led down this dark path”.
“We have witnessed elsewhere in the world the consequences of narrow forms of nationalism based on race or ethnicity. It is not the society we want for ourselves or our children.”
Ramaphosa defended policies of affirmative action and our broad-based black economic empowerment, including through preferential procurement and initiatives such as the Black Industrialists programme.
Andre de Ruyter’s appointment as the new CEO of Eskom drew criticism last week from some unions, lobby groups and black nationalist parties such as the EFF, but it emerged in a report over the weekend that more than two-dozen black managers had been asked to take over running the troubled entity, but had had no appetite for the job.
Ramaphosa said in his letter on Monday that the public service needed “rebuilding” and that it would be important to appoint the right people to key jobs, even if they were white males.
“Within government itself, transformation of the public service to reflect this country’s demography has been critical. As we strive to rebuild the public service – including at our state-owned entities (SOEs) – it is our mission to appoint people who are capable, qualified, ethical and who embody the values of public service, whether they are black or white, men or women.”
He, however, said that the private sector had not matched the “significant progress” in transformation in the public sector had not been matched by the private sector.
“The report released by the Commission for Employment Equity in August points, at best, to poor adherence to employment equity legislation, and, at worst, outright disregard for the law.
“The upper echelons of management in private companies are still dominated by white men, although they make up just 5% of the economically active population. Africans only make up 15% of top management, despite accounting for 79% of the economically active population.
“Business needs to urgently do some serious introspection. Our transformative agenda cannot succeed unless we work together to broaden the participation of all South Africans in our economy, and it begins in the workplace.”
He said poor labour relations were in part fuelled by perceptions – backed up by the Employment Equity report – that black employees were still being relegated to the factory floor while white employees occupy management roles.
“This inequity naturally has ugly consequences when it comes to the discrepancy in incomes, where black workers will always earn a fraction of what white workers and managers earn.
“Advancing black and female employees must be a cornerstone of any company’s operations. This must move beyond merely ensuring compliance, and towards succession planning, mentoring, training and skills transfer, and towards giving employees a meaningful stake in the companies they work for.
“Black economic empowerment and affirmative action are important tools to further non-racial transformation.”
He said government would intensify its to address the injustices of the past – “especially in correcting the skewed race and gender composition of our public companies”.
“We must ensure that all South Africans, regardless of colour, have an opportunity to contribute to building a better, fairer and more prosperous nation.
“I call upon South Africans to embrace each other as equals, and look beyond their preconceptions of someone merely by looking at their skin colour.
“Let us move beyond the psychological barrier in the interests of rebuilding this country together.
“In the words of Martin Luther King Jnr: ‘We must learn to live together as brothers (and sisters) or perish together as fools.'”
An earlier version of this article was headlined: We will appoint ‘any capable, qualified and ethical’ white man, and others. It was changed after a complaint from the Presidency, which felt it was a “sensational and deliberate distortion of the president’s actual text as well as his views and sentiment on this matter”.
Last week, I met with the leadership of the #BlackBusinessCouncil where, among other things, we discussed issues of transformation. I took the opportunity to inform them about government’s commitment to transformation and non-racialism.https://t.co/YQEDOXoFZ1 pic.twitter.com/ciZQsXVaNR
— Cyril Ramaphosa ???????? #StaySafe (@CyrilRamaphosa) November 25, 2019
(Edited by Charles Cilliers)