Failed schools and policies, not race, are holding blacks back - Business Day

20 August 2018 - Routinely, race is said to matter because it is the primary fault line between rich and poor. The truth is that the actual fault line is disadvantage, an apartheid inheritance compounded by nearly 25 years of intended redress that has not only failed to help the poor nearly enough but in many ways has deepened their plight.

Michael Morris

Mick Jagger is perhaps an improbable source of intellectual insight, but the rock star is likeably unpretentious in saying of the past that it’s "a great place and I don’t want to erase it or to regret it, but I don’t want to be its prisoner either".

It’s not true of everybody, of course; history’s miseries provide a surfeit of regrets, none accessible via the delete key. As for being imprisoned by the past, who would really want that? Yet what’s depressingly clear from debate in 2018, especially about "empowerment", is that so few South Africans find it possible to break out of the dungeon of racial ideas forged in the past.

Such thinking thrives on the common-sense thesis that the appearance of things is the truth. Under apartheid, people were what they looked like, and were treated accordingly. Despite being common citizens, people are still, officially, what they look like, and are so treated. And this by the bald standards of the founding document of such egregious sociology, the Population Registration Act of 1950, the bedrock of apartheid.

Too few, perhaps, remember scholar and former Robben Islander Neville Alexander’s warnings, most recently in April 2011, that "fighting race with race is bad social science and even worse practical politics". Without "tackling the structural economic and social inequalities that we took over without much modification from the apartheid state", he said, and "exploring, researching and piloting alternative approaches to those based on apartheid racial categories", it would be a "fundamental theoretical and strategic error to try to do so by perpetuating racial identities in the nonsensical belief that this will not have any negative or destructive social consequences".

Alexander was no liberal, but the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) is similarly convinced that "empowerment" cannot succeed if based merely on perpetuating apartheid racial identities and ignoring the real barriers.

Routinely, race is said to matter because it is the primary fault line between rich and poor. The truth is that the actual fault line is disadvantage, an apartheid inheritance compounded by nearly 25 years of intended redress that has not only failed to help the poor nearly enough but in many ways has deepened their plight.

Blacks are not being kept out of jobs and the ranks of the middle class because of their race. What is holding them back is SA’s failure to overcome their disadvantages on anything near a meaningful scale. Instead, research by my colleagues shows disadvantages are perpetuated by dysfunctional schools that deny millions basic workplace skills and the keys to higher learning; economic and labour policies that are so counterproductive they only increase joblessness and hardship and raise barriers between the poor and a shot at gaining work experience and a foothold on the path out of poverty; and the failure to extend property rights to those long denied them.

Especially the most ambitious among us, who stake everything on seeking better lives in the cities only to end up where apartheid spatial planning determined they should be — in shacks on the urban periphery or in government-provided houses they cannot regard as assets for a full eight years.

To all of this, race-based empowerment adds and often stimulates the stigma of victimhood, undermining the self-worth and resourcefulness of those who succeed, and breeding resentment and disaffection among those who don’t. And the cost of the complacent unanimity that it’s race that matters is paid by the very citizens — the poor and disadvantaged — who are misled into believing they are its beneficiaries.

The shame is that SA has shown it can jettison wrong-headed thinking, ample proof of which is available from the briefest glimpse into Ben Maclennan’s indispensable anthology, Apartheid — The Lighter Side. Yet some entries seem shockingly familiar, rather than strange.

Among them, this March 1967 statement in parliament by then interior minister PK le Roux: "There is no-one on this side [of the House] who does not know what we mean by a full-blooded nonwhite person."

Half a century later, anyone doubting Le Roux would have only to consult contemporary law.

• Morris is head of media at the IRR.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2018-08-20-michael-morris-failed-schools-and-policies-not-race-are-holding-blacks-back/

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