Beyond black and white: why ‘aggressive’ pigment politics needs taming - Timeslive

Nov 15, 2022
15 November 2022 - Should race law be relaxed in SA? Eskom board member and former Altron CEO Mteto Nyati says yes, at least for Eskom.

Gabriel Crouse

Should race law be relaxed in SA? Eskom board member and former Altron CEO Mteto Nyati says yes, at least for Eskom.

In an interview with the Sunday Times two weeks ago, Nyati said the power utility would relook at its procurement policies with an eye on dropping localisation requirements. He added: “We need to be focusing on who is the best person for the job ... regardless of how they look.”

From an operations perspective there are substantial advantages to prioritising value for money over skin pigment. But what about the bigger picture? Before relaxing race law in employment and procurement, one must consider public opinion, the criminal justice system, the constitutional framework, the economy and the fourth estate, to name a few.

Ideally one would start by asking thousands of randomly sampled, demographically representative South Africans this: “Who should be appointed to jobs in SA?”

The choice of answers should pit racial preference against merit. Even better would be to ask the question again and again, over time, using different methodologies, to get some sense of how public opinion is split. 

Happily, the Institute of Race Relations has done so. I will use the 2020 results, which were similar to surveys dating back to 2013.

In the 2020 survey about 13% of white respondents preferred that “only blacks” get jobs “for a long time ahead” or until “demographically representative”. Likewise, less than 20% of black respondents preferred a Dis-Chem-style “only blacks” job appointment policy. In other words, fewer than 20% across races think race should come first.

By contrast, more than 80% of black respondents wanted jobs filled on merit. Of those, three-quarters preferred “merit” appointments and “special training for the disadvantaged”, while one-quarter wanted “appointments on merit alone, without such training”. 

What about inequality? According to Stats SA’s 2019 Inequality Trends Report (the latest data available dates to 2015), the average white person earned eight times more than the average black person in SA. How is public opinion divided on whether race law is necessary to close this gap?

In the IRR’s 2020 survey respondents were presented with this statement: “With better education and more jobs, the present inequality between the races will steadily disappear.”

A little more than 70% of black respondents agreed, with the figure the same among white respondents. Less than 30%, quite evenly distributed across races, thought race law was necessary to close the gap, but most disagreed. 

That split would make no sense if the “daily lived experience” of black people was domination by vicious white supremacists, as in apartheid. So the 2020 IRR survey asked people if they had “personally experienced any form of racism over the last five years?” More than 80% of black respondents said “no”.

Since this is at odds with the impression created by Twitter, it is worth asking: are these results corroborated? Stats SA’s 2019 report found 94% of black people reported having not “experienced discrimination based on race” in the past two years. How people report their lived experience matters, even (or maybe especially) when it contradicts Twitterati projections.

There is more to say about public opinion, including that even 70% and 80% majorities can be wrong, but the point is that the call to put merit first at institutions such as Eskom fits with the majority’s belief that race law is unnecessary to close the gap and merit in job appointments is preferable in the meantime.

SA has the highest average negative answer to Ipsos international surveys on whether people think their country is going in the right or wrong direction. One reason is crime, including corruption. Is there a connection to race law?

The most telling analysis, the Zondo report, said: “It should be noted that, in explaining the high incidence of procurement irregularities, Mr [Willie] Mathebula [Treasury's acting procurement officer] attributed as much as half the problem to misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the applicable rules and half to intentional abuse.”

The report also analyses the “inevitable tension” between prioritising race vs value for money in public procurement, concluding first that the latter must be unambiguously prioritised over the former to avoid the corruption-enabling confusion Mathebula bemoaned.

“Ultimately, in the view of the commission, the primary national interest is best served when the government derives maximum value-for-money…”, according to the Zondo Report. This comports neatly with what Mr Nyati said he now wants to do.
It is worth stressing that crooks of all races have exploited BEE. The reason race law enables corruption has nothing to do with the races involved.
It is worth stressing that crooks of all races have exploited BEE. The reason race law enables corruption has nothing to do with the races involved. When political considerations are supposed to be weighed against maximising value for money by procurement officers who have the discretion to do so from one tender to the next, then checking criminality is impracticable. 

Unambiguously prioritising value for money would make it easier to counter criminality, but how does relaxing race law fit into the broader “justice” envisaged by our constitution? I would say it fits perfectly. Non-racialism is a Chapter 1 value and by now race “targets”, really quotas, are undermining that sacred principle.

In 2020 the Mpumalanga Sunbirds, a top-tier netball team, were disqualified in a semi-final for having “too many” black players. In 2019 advocate Ncumisa Mayosi was denied elevation to the provincial council of the Cape Bar because the quota of black women had already been reached.

Top management levels in local government are now “over-represented” by black men, so on the “targets” logic a Dis-Chem style moratorium should be imposed on hiring black men. Anyone who calls that “non-racialism” has lost the plot.

Talking points get stuck, but history moves on. Though black people once earned as little as 10% of total national wealth at the height of apartheid, things have changed. According to Stats SA, by 2015 black total income was double white income. The black top 10% got the largest of all measured groups, more than twice the top white 10%, and seven times the black bottom 40%. Measured per capita the gap between the black top 10% and bottom 40% grows to a factor of about 30+. The black top 10% grew massively between 2006 and 2015, while the black bottom 40% did not move. 

Why does growing intra-race inequality matter? Race laws inevitably benefit the most politically connected cronies (of all races), while value for money only advances pro-poor policy.

SA’s biggest problem (according to all IRR surveys) is unemployment. This can only be properly addressed by sustained value-add growth that significantly outpaces population growth, which can only happen if Gross Fixed Capital Formation increases by a factor of three, which (whatever your moral view) is only going to happen when domestic and foreign capitalists invest in SA at triple the current rate. That will not happen before race laws are reversed.

Perhaps the most exciting reason to relax race law is the benefit this would have for black businesses, which have had to operate in an economy that has shrunk in real, per capita terms, since 2010. The Zondo report details many cases where credible black businesses were replaced with others (with better political connections) in the name of BEE, but the starkest case emerged under Brian Molefe at Eskom. Dropping race laws means black businesses will no longer be incentivised to curry political favour and can focus on value-add instead, where I expect the vast majority to succeed in an economy that will finally grow again as it did in the mid-2000s, when 3-million jobs were added.

Furthermore, Mteto Nyati may have an ally in minister Enoch Godongwana. The IRR has repeatedly petitioned Treasury to allow organs of state such as Eskom to follow the Zondo report and prioritise value for money above race and localisation. Godongwana’s recent response that “we are giving you the authority, each organ of state, to have its own procurement policies” is welcome.

However, that does not necessarily mean SA is ready to abandon race law. There is a split through the fourth estate, parliament and cabinet on whether to make pigment politics “more aggressive”, to use employment and labour minister Thulas Nxesi’s pithy phrase.

But whereas roughly 70-80% of the population is ready to relax race law, work together, end load-shedding and close race gaps by improving jobs and education, most of those dominating the upper echelons of power would much rather get “more aggressive”.

* Crouse is Head of Campaigns at the Institute of Race Relations

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