Race-based subtraction is not adding up to a solution for SA - Businesslive

Jan 14, 2019
14 January 2019 - As elections approach and our credulity is tested, we owe it to ourselves to weigh the claims that will inevitably be made about “transformation” against its singular, dubious achievement of sustaining discord at the cost of progress.

Michael Morris

SA’s most pressing question is one that’s almost never asked. Perhaps, thinking the answer is so obvious, we refrain from asking “what is transformation?” to avoid ridicule and the risk of seeming not only ignorant but actively hostile to post-1994 democratic gains.

As a consequence, in boardroom, shebeen, school hall, church,  sports club and at dinner parties, “transformation (usually “sorely lacking”, “long overdue” or, at its most shocking, “absent”) enjoys a spectrum of approval from complacent unanimity to fervour. The slightest hesitance is taken as revanchism.

Even declared opponents will grudgingly make the case for its necessity. Yet, to ask what “transformation” is is a rational question that every day begs more urgently for an answer.

It matters, above all, because in its meaning “transformation” has parted ways with “change”. And where “change” means a material alteration in the daily life of society, “transformation” is too often an impostor, content with the appearance of things, cleaving to race as its sole measure.

The distinction matters for two reasons. Though real change since 1994 has been considerable, 2019 finds SA desperately needing it on a much greater scale; the economy is limping, unemployment is rising steadily, schooling (the most vital building block of change) is chronically poor, entrepreneurs and employers (the second-most vital building block) are harried and denigrated, and the dependable, tax-paying middle class is rewarded with suspicion and hostility.

The second reason is a pitiful irony. Because the cardinal project of “transformation” by definition devalues the skills, expertise, commitment and investment of South Africans who happen to be white, it not only undermines their agency in generating the actually transformative change on which the disadvantaged pin their hopes, but also devalues everyone else’s skills, expertise, commitment and investment which, black or white, are indistinguishably critical to the country’s success.

The perplexing dynamics were recently evident in the furore over Siya Kolisi’s comments about sporting quotas, and the ructions over Daniel du Toit’s appointment to head ailing Denel.

There remains an unignorable chasm between skilled, prosperous South Africans, many of them white, and the yearning masses of the poor, most of them black — yet racially divisive “transformation” only widens the chasm by rejecting the materials needed to close it.

This very rationale was on spectacular display recently  in the aftermath of what appears to have been a law and order bungle at Cape Town’s Clifton beach.

In the only credible effort to get to the bottom of it, Marie-Louise Antoni cautioned: “In this era of weak opinions and strong Wi-Fi signals, we should be wary of amplifying the agitators among us.”

In contrast, commentator Eusebius McKaiser went for the race angle in his article “A racism lesson for mayor Plato”. Dan Plato asked how, as whites and coloureds had also been ordered to leave the beach, racism could be blamed?

McKaiser rephrased the question and offered his own corollary: “Once every white, coloured and African beachgoer has been asked to leave Clifton, who is left in the neighbourhood? You’ll find your answer anchored in the structural racism of colonial and apartheid-era laws.”

And he is nearly right. But so intent was McKaiser on picking on the whites of Clifton — and everywhere else — that he failed to see that his formulation really fingers a history of disadvantage the governing party has signally failed to address in its 25 years in power.

South Africans can live where they like, but the absence of genuine change — skills and real economic agency — is the limit that counts, and one “transformation” fails to lift.

As elections approach and our credulity is tested, we owe it to ourselves to weigh the claims that will inevitably be made about “transformation” against its singular, dubious achievement of sustaining discord at the cost of progress.

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


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