We were warned affirmative action was a bad idea - Businesslive

29 June 2020 - The policy of affirmative action and BEE as implemented today is a disastrous mistake and we will rue the day the people of SA were willy-nilly brought to accept it.

The policy of affirmative action and BEE as implemented today is a disastrous mistake and we will rue the day the people of SA were willy-nilly brought to accept it.

On the face of it this might seem an incendiary opinion to express in the fevered sociopolitical atmosphere of mid-2020 in which, in trepidation, millions mind what they say for fear of causing offence and being pilloried for it.

But it says a lot about the chicken-heartedness of much of our contemporary debate that the words in the first line above were written 14 years ago by Marxist and former Robben Islander Neville Alexander in an essay in which he sought to demolish the racial thinking transferred holus-bolus from apartheid to democracy, what he called “the ingrained racial habitus that has disfigured both the construction and the perception of reality by the vast majority of South Africans”.

Whatever you think of some of the wilder set-tos on social media recently, it should be alarming that there is no determined state or public effort to erase the defining vestiges of apartheid.

Alexander could not have put it better when he referred to “the irresponsible practice on the part of political, cultural and other role models of referring unproblematically to ‘blacks’, ‘coloureds’, ‘Indians’, and ‘whites’ in their normal public discourse, well knowing that by so doing they are perpetuating the racial categories of apartheid SA and wittingly or unwittingly entrenching racial prejudice”.

As he saw it, it was not only possible, but desirable to “rethink the ways in which we are trying to bring about what we refer to as historical redress, such that we do not unintentionally perpetuate racial identities”.

In the same essay — an edited version of a lecture delivered to University of Fort Hare students in March 2006, titled “Racial Identity, Citizenship and Nation Building in Post-Apartheid SA”, Alexander confidently judged that “(besides) the government’s and the ANC’s apologists, there is hardly anyone in SA who does not acknowledge that only a thin layer of people and, in some cases, a particular group of influential individuals, are being economically ‘empowered’”.

It’s no surprise that he also advanced the idea central to the Institute of Race Relations’s (IRR’s) nonracial empowerment alternative — economic empowerment for the disadvantaged — when he wrote that “there is no need to use the racial categories of the past” for transformation policies when individual beneficiaries could be selected on the basis of class or income.

“The large area of overlap between ‘race’ and ‘class’,” he went on, “makes this approach possible. In addition, it would make it possible for all economically disadvantaged individuals, irrespective of colour, to benefit from the programmes that derive from the strategy.”

Beyond the technicalities of empowerment, he argued, “it ought to be clear at least to the more reflective state officials and political leadership that if we agree that identities are not given but constructed, we should use every opportunity to bend our people towards the realisation of the non-racial values” in the constitution.

Were he alive today Alexander would assuredly not be a cheerleader for the IRR. But he would be a rare and vital participant in a debate otherwise enfeebled by what novelist Salman Rushdie has called the pervasive “culture of offendedness” — and, more importantly, one that has only added muscle to the worst of narrow-minded conservatism that clings to race as a meaningful indicator and finds in the inanities of wokist whatnot a perverse proof of its own convictions.

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

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2020-06-28-michael-morris-we-were-warned-affirmative-action-was-a-bad-idea/

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