It would be hard to find a crisper account of the devastating impact of apartheid than the few lines on the opening page of a book published five years ago on South Africa’s post-1994 reformation.
“Racial discrimination under the National Party government,” the brief passage begins, “was profoundly damaging to black South Africans.”
“It pervaded every aspect of their lives, confining them to overcrowded rural ‘homelands’ and segregated urban ‘townships’ where housing was cramped and electricity and modern sanitation were rare luxuries. It condemned them to schools where teachers were under-qualified and classes overcrowded, and where textbooks, stationery, and other facilities were limited and sometimes non-existent. It precluded them from buying houses or land in most parts of the country. It prevented them from running businesses in city centres designated as ‘white’ areas, while restricting the business activities open to them in townships. For many years, it also barred them from skilled jobs that were ‘reserved’ for whites.”
The passage ends: “Statutory racial discrimination thus made upward mobility infinitely more difficult for black South Africans, since the normal foundations for this – adequate housing, good schooling, skilled employment, property ownership, and business opportunities – were barred to them in whole or in part.”
Reading this summary now, we might well thank our lucky stars that we don’t live there anymore. South Africa in 2019 is immeasurably different and immeasurably better, a constitutional state crafted by a society that chose freedom and democracy over oppression and exclusion.
But read those lines again, and there can be no mistaking how dauntingly familiar apartheid’s deprivations remain today – not as history, but as the lived reality for millions of black South Africans.
We need to have a serious talk about this.
For as long as we put it off and try to duck the truth, South Africa will continue to defeat itself – its own people – by remaining on a path that denies them what they want and deserve.
The tendency to duck the issue is baldly captured in the few unqualified references to the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) in your report: “I haven’t spoken to Zille since I resigned – Maimane.”
With reference to the ructions in the Democratic Alliance (DA), Maimane, we read, “did appear to reference the Institute of Race Relations (IRR)…” (in a television interview).
The piece goes on: “[Maimane] referred to them as being among the South Africans who ‘happened to not want a project of a reconciled South Africa that redresses historical injustices’. A paragraph later, Maimane is quoted as referring to the IRR in a radio interview as a ‘right-wing movement’.”
The former DA leader is free to think and say whatever he wishes, as is the media to draw whatever conclusions it sees fit.
But the political, as much as the media audience, does at least deserve rationality.
The passage on apartheid at the top of this piece comes from the book written by my colleague, Dr Anthea Jeffery, titled BEE: Helping or Hurting?
The focus of its just over 500 pages is how 21st century South Africa is failing in overcoming the effects of the apartheid disaster on its primary victims, the black majority – and what it can and should do about that.
Jeffery is the author of the IRR’s comprehensive empowerment alternative, Economic Empowerment for the Disadvantaged (EED), which outlines practical, achievable proposals to deliver to South Africa’s millions of economic outsiders of today the “adequate housing, good schooling, skilled employment, property ownership, and business opportunities” denied to them by apartheid.
The record since 1994 demonstrates beyond doubt – as umpteen senior government leaders have been saying since at least 2010 – that race-based empowerment has not only failed, but imposed additional penalties that come at the greatest cost to those it is meant to help.
By contrast – like the government’s own non-racial social grants system – EED shows how it is possible for South Africa to succeed without having to depend on the divisive, costly and ineffective expedient of race. EED focuses instead on tackling actual, lingering disadvantage – chiefly in education, housing and healthcare, where current deficiencies and dysfunction deny millions of people any hope of a better life.
EED proposes giving the dignifying liberty of choice to the poor through a voucher system for schooling, housing and medical care, and incentivising employers to contribute directly, as well as rewarding their contributions to investment, job creation, taxes, and innovation.
Fundamentally, EED acknowledges the unignorable truth that, as a consequence of our cruel history, most South Africans who need and deserve real help 25 years down the line are black, and they will be its primary beneficiaries. The same is uncontroversially true of social grants. The critical distinction is that it regards disadvantage where it actually exists as the real problem that needs fixing.
It might please detractors to think of these things as reflecting “right-wing” sentiment, or as evidence of an organisation that “happens to not want a project of a reconciled South Africa that redresses historical injustices”.
But this is plainly wrong on the facts. Set against the status quo of chronic unemployment, dysfunctional schooling, appalling health services, high crime rates, pitifully low economic growth, and dwindling opportunities for upward mobility – all of which impinge most harshly on poor black South Africans – there is good reason to argue that it’s the “progressive” agenda that spurns the project of historical redress, not least for wilfully ignoring alternative ideas expressly crafted to secure genuine liberation.
No unexamined idea becomes true simply for lack of attention. And there is no excuse for thinking that slurs and falsities justify evading an honest conversation about socio-economic challenges that require more urgent attention in 2019 than at any time since 1994.
Morris is head of media at the IRR. This is a right of reply to the news story: I haven’t spoken to Zille since I resigned – Maimane.