Poor are left out in the cold as liberalism is miscast as racially sectarian - Businesslive

Nov 04, 2019
4 November 2019 - If SA’s “economic outsiders” ever bothered to follow the metropolitan conversation, it is hard to imagine their being anything but bitter about its wilful evasiveness, its dogged avoidance of what really matters.

Michael Morris

If SA’s “economic outsiders” ever bothered to follow the metropolitan conversation, it is hard to imagine their being anything but bitter about its wilful evasiveness, its dogged avoidance of what really matters.

This is no small thing. We are, after all, talking about millions of people, fellow citizens who don’t have jobs, or the education to match the economy’s steady shift to high-skills sectors, or the assets that could help make up for not having an income. Among them are the recipients of SA’s more than 17-million social grants, a lifeline threatened by the very same conditions that deny them jobs, a shot at a better education or the chance of gaining assets worth having.

Yet the most voluble of our middle-class intelligentsia seem altogether less interested in thinking about how these hurdles can be overcome than in burnishing their credentials as the arbiters of ideological rectitude, chiefly by cynically miscasting liberalism as racially sectarian.

Theirs seems to be an ambition to defeat by embarrassment. But liberals have always been called names by those who have run out of ideas, and they are not capable, now, of being embarrassed for proposing better ones that would not only be that much closer to the constitutional objectives of democratic SA’s 1996 lodestar, but would materially assist the country’s deprived “outsiders” in measurable ways.

One suspects the Left — more properly “left” with a small “l”, for we can be sure these are people who insist in their daily suburban lives on the liberties liberals argue the working class deserve, too — are actually themselves embarrassed that their arguments over the past 25 years have turned out to be a flop.

Set against last week’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey showing yet another increase in the number of jobless in the third quarter, and the sharply drawn profile of our national crisis in finance minister Tito Mboweni’s medium-term budget policy statement, wilfully misrepresenting the countervailing liberal argument is only myopic.

Incomprehensibly, “liberal” now means “narrow-minded”, in the phrase of one commentator you would have thought would know better, ditto the columnist who appeared to think another’s characterisation of “Freedom Front Plus-lite” was on the mark (which only defines an illiberal proposition).

Detractors clutch at the “race” straw, but evidently without stopping to think how they might justify their own jobs, salaries and status except on the grounds of liberal principles they blithely dismiss as “white”, “racist”, or of concern only to people they despise.

The poor are expected to cheer, presumably. Yet — in contrast to the liberal offering — nowhere in the cringingly Verwoerdian project of preserving the usefulness of race do we read a single practical recommendation to right SA’s wrongs or draw the legions of “economic outsiders” into the very economy in which a smug commentariat claims darling status.

The Institute of Race Relations’ own plain, implementable proposals over the years run to many thousands of words — and they do not anywhere suggest that SA’s history of racial abuse is irrelevant, can or should be denied, or has left no lasting material effects, and nor do they propose leaving the poor to the mercy of the market.

The spectacle of leading commentators falling over themselves to justify the failure of their own ideas and pretending they are relieved of having to grapple seriously with alternatives might have been entertaining under different circumstances.

In SA in 2019, it’s a tragedy — for the cost will be paid by the millions misled into believing their welfare is in friendly hands.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations


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