Growing attacks on BEE are good news for the born-frees – Business Day, 15 December 2014

Intellectual attack helped to erode the foundations of apartheid. It is beginning to erode the foundations of the racial and other policies pursued by the African National Congress. That is better news for the born-frees than policies that relegate them to perpetual disadvantage.

By John Kane-Berman 

SA’s youthful democracy comes of age next year. About half our population of about 54-million will then be made up of "born-frees", people born after 1994 and therefore too young to remember anything about apartheid.

The Africans among them nevertheless face formidable challenges, notably getting education and finding work. For every African born-free of working age — those between 15 and 24 years old — with a job, 1.29 are jobless on the official definition of unemployment and 2.38 on the expanded definition.

Among coloured born-frees the ratio is one to one on the official definition, but 1.24 to one on the expanded. Among Indians and whites it is the other way round: there are more people with jobs than without.

Given low economic growth and the poor performance of most ordinary schools, many Africans joining the labour market next year will simply swell the ranks of the 2.27-million "discouraged" African workers. Recent amendments to labour law will probably make it even more difficult for them to find jobs. A recent Labour Court decision endorsing the imposition of a minimum wage throughout the steel and engineering industry won’t help.

While labour law and practice reduce the opportunities available to born-frees by raising barriers to market entry, legislation providing for employment equity and black economic empowerment (BEE) are designed to give African born-frees a leg up. Some will no doubt benefit. But there is a great paradox here. African born-frees may think they are free but they have been decreed to be "previously disadvantaged".

Each year about another million African newborns are added to the section of the population regarded as previously disadvantaged. This applies not only to those who may be disadvantaged by poverty or ignorance at present, but also irrespective of how wealthy or successful or well-educated their parents are.

Some of course are appointed or promoted to fill racial targets in pursuit of demographic proportionality, but others climb the jobs ladder on their own merits. The latter especially regard any insinuation that they were appointed for racial reasons as a stigma. Yet there is no end to the government’s racial preferencing policies. Far from relaxation as the post-apartheid era progresses, recent legislation provides for heavier punishment of companies that fail to comply with racial requirements.

The recent legislation ignores growing criticism of the thrust behind it. Richard Maponya, who became a top entrepreneur despite all the apartheid obstacles he faced, recently wrote that BEE was causing black youth to "veer towards a culture of entitlement". He has also said BEE robs matriculants and graduates of the incentive to start their own businesses.

A prominent academic, Njabulo Ndebele, said "free people do not scream for affirmative action", which was "an abandonment of the will to struggle".

Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu provoked outrage in some quarters when she recently declared that young people had lost nothing to apartheid and weren’t going to get free houses from her. But she got support from Thami Mazwai in his column on this page, as did President Jacob Zuma for his "frankness" in saying people should stop relying on the government and start doing things for themselves.

Zuma was contrasting South Africans unfavourably with foreigners who came to SA to start businesses. Ahmed Kathrada, a former Rivonia trialist, recently called on youth to stand on their own two feet and not be dependent on the government for everything.

Intellectual attack helped to erode the foundations of apartheid. It is beginning to erode the foundations of the racial and other policies pursued by the African National Congress. That is better news for the born-frees than policies that relegate them to perpetual disadvantage.

• Kane-Berman is a consultant at the South African Institute of Race Relations.

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