Shucking off the hang-ups that keep brake on real change - Business Day

30 April 2018 - The times in which one only had to be a white person in order to have an identity of one’s own now belong in the distant past. These words are not mine. Nor is the sentiment even remotely proximate to my own. In fact, it’s quite difficult to pin down what this sentence actually means.

Michael Morris

 The times in which one only had to be a white person in order to have an identity of one’s own now belong in the distant past. These words are not mine. Nor is the sentiment even remotely proximate to my own. In fact, it’s quite difficult to pin down what this sentence actually means.

But what is striking, at a time when racial identity is an article of faith for many claiming progressive credentials — and its supposed benefits the holy grail of policy making and party political grandstanding — is the jarring irony that these patronising words, dressed in smug ideological approval, were uttered by Lourens Muller, minister of the interior in John Vorster’s cabinet back in 1969.

Suddenly, then, the words make sense of a sort, or at least are more clearly nonsensical for being placed in their proper — dated and backward — context.

This was a surprisingly late catch-up, as coloured, Indian and white activists had already given up their lives and their freedom for the cause, not least in the Rivonia Trial

We know, after all, what Muller meant: courtesy of the National Party and the convolutions of "separate development", South Africans other than white-skinned ones could rejoice in an acknowledged distinctiveness, an own "identity", bestowed by the state perhaps less to enable than to compel them to stand apart.

It was no gift, of course, and nor did it come anywhere near the modern humanistic virtue that lingers in that promising reference to "the distant past". This was only dogma kitted out as homily. It would be comforting to believe all that really does belong in the distant past.

Only last week, a Facebook comment, quite measured and, in its gist, hard to fault, came as a reminder — unintended as it was — of the continuum of a political logic that rests on the foundation of racial identity. "We are pretty much ok," the Facebook commentator said, "with any government that tries to amend the wrongs of the past apartheid government".

Which seems fair enough. Except that at the heart of the exchange was SA’s pervasive and little-questioned "transformation" programme, which, far from achieving change and amending the wrongs of the past, has turned out to be an elaboration not a repudiation of Mullerite thinking. Hang-ups about race are something South African political elites have shared for a long time.

On this score, coincidentally, 1969 was a meaningful date. A year after the genuinely nonracial Liberal Party chose to disband in 1968 rather than submit to legislation forbidding parties with multiracial membership, the then exiled ANC voted at its fraught Morogoro conference in Tanzania — not without dissent — to open its membership for the first time to non-Africans.

This was a surprisingly late catch-up, as coloured, Indian and white activists had already given up their lives and their freedom for the cause, not least in the Rivonia Trial. If the history of our competing nationalisms explains why we still cleave to race as a factor of meaning, it offers scant reassurance to the bulk of South Africans who remain its primary victims.

Real change to "amend the wrongs" of apartheid must, in our view, begin with abandoning race (quotas and demographic accounting) and using measures of socioeconomic disadvantage (the same basis that has made social grants effective in securing upliftment) to identify beneficiaries of an empowerment policy, which, mainly through education, can accelerate disadvantaged people into the mainstream economy.

We have argued that under this approach most beneficiaries will be black, but as a function of stubborn post-apartheid inequalities and genuine needs. Current policy, expressly predicated on race rather than pressing socioeconomic realities, has proved incapable over nearly a quarter of century of reaching anywhere near as deep as it should into poor communities.

Thus, identity mania continues to subject South Africans to the depriving conceptions of white nationalism. The greatest irony — especially for the ANC — is captured in the ringing declaration that was meant to embody a future SA’s nonracial lodestar, that "the preaching and practice of national, race or colour discrimination and contempt shall be a punishable crime".

These words predate Muller’s musings on identity nearly half a century ago. They are contained in the Freedom Charter of 1955.

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

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