NEWS & ANALYSIS

A large and hungry crocodile

James Myburgh on the responses and non-responses to the EEAB, and the racial nationalism that is driving it

Over the past few weeks the South African media has somehow stumbled, grudgingly and reluctantly, into a partial debate around the racial policies of the African National Congress government. Before analysing the significance of this discussion - and what is being said and not said - it is important to note what is exactly at issue.

The stated goal of the ANC is to ensure that "all centres of power and influence and other critical spheres of social endeavour become broadly representative of the country's demographics." "Racial imbalances" in any sphere - defined as the continued over-representation of racial minorities relative to their proportion of the total population - are regarded as a product of the "historical injustice" and a continued offence to the dignity of the racial majority.

The objective of the Employment Equity Amendment Bill (EEAB), that has been at the centre of the recent controversy, is to allow the ANC government to more effectively intervene to enforce racial and gender quotas, based upon national demographics, at the higher levels of the economy. As ANC MP Buti Manamela put it in his speech in the second reading debate in the National Assembly the intent of the Bill was to relegate to history the "situation wherein more than 70% of the management in the workplaces are predominantly white and that the majority of the population remain on the sidelines of transformation."

The animating spirit behind the Bill is hardly unique to South Africa or a product of its particular history (though our past certainly provides a bottomless well of justification for our racial nationalists to draw upon). Similar demands, and the adoption of measures of one kind or another designed to give effect to them, have been commonplace in the new nations that emerged following the retreat or collapse of empire. In 1961 Franz Fanon himself observed of this trend in post-colonial Africa:

"On the morrow of independence [the native bourgeoisie] violently attacks colonial personalities: barristers, traders, landed proprietors, doctors and higher civil servants. It will fight to the bitter end against these people ‘who insult our dignity as a nation'. It waves aloft the notion of the nationalisation and Africanisation of the ruling classes. The fact is that such action will become more and more tinged by racism, until the bourgeoisie bluntly puts the problem to the government by saying ‘We must have these posts'. They will not stop their snarling until they have taken over every one."

In this context what is interesting about the EEAB is less that an African nationalist movement like the ANC would try and push through such legislation at this moment in South Africa's post-apartheid history, but rather the responses and particularly non-responses of broader civil society.

The Democratic Alliance apparently sleep walked into voting for this Bill, its liberal instincts dulled into non-existence by the soporific euphemisms administered to the party by Dr Wilmot James. As noted here this decision, though causing huge ructions within the DA and liberal circles, took over a week to acquire any sort of traction in either the daily English or Afrikaans press - with only Rapport giving it significant play initially.

The reason for this is, it seems, simply that many journalists and editors struggled to understand why anyone would want to vote against such legislation. This also explains why the Bill itself, quite apart from the DA's flip-flop on it, provoked so little contestation. Were South Africa's press state-directed this would be easily explicable. But given the outspokenness of our newspapers on a range of other issues, most notably ANC corruption, the silence on this and other recent legislation, designed to give effect to the harsh ends of on old and deeply destructive racial nationalism, was genuinely curious.

Stranger still has been the criticism of the DA for reversing course, following the intervention of Helen Zille, and announcing that it would henceforth oppose the EEAB in its current form. The issue was a simple one, given that the ANC has hardly kept its objectives under a bushel: was the DA right or wrong, liberal or illiberal, to now oppose legislation designed to give the state far greater powers to enforce ‘demographic representivity' across all levels of the private sector?

Though Zille's course correction occasioned much indignation among many of our public intellectuals one would be hard put to discern, from their writings, what exactly was at stake.

In an article advising Zille to ignore Tony Leon's criticism of the DA's initial support for the EEAB Eusebius McKaiser managed to avoid mentioning the name of the Bill, let alone its actual provisions, referring to it only as "legislation related to BEE." Beeld editor Adriaan Basson meanwhile described the controversy as relating only to the party's stance on "regstellende aksie" (affirmative action). In his Business Day column Johnny Steinberg accused Zille and Leon of not understanding the black experience, while again omitting to mention even the name of the Bill, its provisions, or its objectives.

In an opinion piece for the Cape Times Wilmot James, a strong proponent of the EEAB within the DA, euphemistically described race quotas determined along demographic lines as a matter of "distributional justice." Even more strikingly, he argued that to oppose such measures was to disqualify one as a liberal. As he put it, "liberalism is not simply about individual rights and the separation of powers, critical to liberty as these things are, but also about the fairness and justice in the distribution of public office, assets and job opportunities. The failure to embrace distributional justice disqualifies [those commentators who had criticised the DA's original support for the EEAB] as liberals."

This strange desire to vehemently defend a particular policy, and attack those who oppose it, while refusing to mention it by its real name, or describe it accurately or completely, is manifested more generally in the current debate around so-called "employment equity".

The ANC government has pursued aggressive ‘Africanisation' measures over the past eighteen years, particularly within state and parastatal institutions. South Africa's racial minorities have, with the exception of some politically-connected and elite insiders, long faced severe direct discrimination in appointments and promotions as a result - and have also seen numerous avenues of opportunity effectively closed off to them. This has long been a major concern of these groups, and has been a major push factor behind the emigration of hundreds of thousands of highly skilled and educated South Africans over the past two decades.

A 2001 survey on Race relations and racism in South African everyday life, by the late Lawrence Schlemmer reported that "The dominant concern among whites is with what is perceived as the reverse racism of affirmative action and black empowerment. These perceptions do not ameliorate with higher education and income, and there are no significant differences between political parties on this score. The consensus among whites that these policies are racist is as complete as the consensus among Africans opposing apartheid in the past."

Among coloureds "the perception of affirmative action as racist" was almost as complete as among whites, with the exception of a small minority of highly educated people, who were presumably uniquely positioned to benefit from such policies. Equally among Indians employment equity was "dominantly seen as racist and even among ANC supporters, three-quarters see it that way." Schlemmer commented that "in some of their attitudes and fears, members of minority groups sound like the oppressed majority during apartheid."

The other side of the ledger is, of course, that the government's racial policies have rapidly advanced a fairly narrow state-sponsored middle class. Indeed, "BEE", in particular, has become a kind of all-you-can-eat buffet for the black elite - paid for by South Africa's pensioners and taxpayers - from which the poor and hungry are perpetually excluded.

Thus, on the one hand many ordinary individuals from South Africa's racial minority groups are all too familiar with that kick-in-the-stomach feeling that comes from being denied a job or promotion on the basis of one's skin-colour. While, on the other, many well educated black South Africans have lived through a period of almost boundless opportunity, similar to, if not greater than, that which white South Africans enjoyed at the height of apartheid in the 1960s. At the same time the ANC's incredibly destructive interventions in education - both before and after 1994 - have acted to further close down the main potential avenue of real advancement for most ordinary young black South Africans. 

One would think that the lived experiences of the past two decades would be central to any rational debate on the EEAB. Has, for instance, the aggressive push for ‘demographic representivity' in Eskom been a success or failure? Is it a model that should or shouldn't be extended to the private sector? And so on. Yet it is almost entirely absent. Even the DA uses words like "redress" and "disadvantage" as if apartheid was dismantled yesterday and history ended in 1994.

What has happened of course is that race has once again reclaimed its old centrality in the country's life and as a result South Africans struggle to imagine a world without it. For those who have acquired a stake in the system, and who feel psychologically affirmed by it, there is every reason not to examine the hurt and harm caused to others, or the damage done to the common good. Hence the indignant, aggressive responses to those who go around stirring up moral discomfort by questioning its morality or utility, or even pointing out its existence.

For others, just trying to get on in life, it is less trouble to put one's head down and make the myriad small compromises (such as racially classifying oneself on some-or-other form) required by the system. It is easier too to concede to the principle of the thing, and haggle rather over implementation in order to ensure one's own interests are not too badly affected.

In a sense for all the talk about dismantling the "legacy of apartheid" we are back where we started. In a 1964 essay the historian C.W. de Kiewiet noted: "One of the most remarkable facts [about the South Africa of the time] is the manner in which the great range of discriminatory laws and the severity of their application to Africans are masked and submerged. They seem to exist at a lower level of comprehension and significance, like automobile accidents. This is so in spite of the still remarkably outspoken English language press."

One of the significant differences between then and now is that the English language press is not outspoken on this issue at all anymore. The Western press is equally disinterested. The New York Times for instance has had correspondents in South Africa pretty much continuously since 1994 yet - if a keyword search of their archive is any guide - they have never once reported on the core ANC's policies of'demographic representivity' or ‘cadre deployment.' This is the same newspaper of course that recently sent a correspondent to Zimbabwe to find the "golden lining" in Zanu-PF's racist land seizures, a policy that would have resulted in the deaths of millions had it not been for massive Western food aid.

In order to contest the racial policies of the ANC then all one has to fall back upon is one's innate strength, of one's own capacity for faithfulness to the ideal of a non-racial South Africa. It is however critical that they are contested. The racial nationalism we are confronted with today is a large and hungry crocodile, one that has eaten its way down through Africa since the early end of colonial rule, leaving no end of suffering and ruin in its wake. It has to be fought and opposed if it is to be restrained, let alone ever defeated. It is not good enough to put a blindfold on decide which part of it one will support or oppose on a "piece by piece" basis. The choice is either to bow down before it, or fight it with everything one has, even if that not be much at all. There is no middle ground.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter