Why we should fear Western racialism

James Myburgh on the significance of the US govt's support for 'demographic representivity' in South Africa

The politics of the dominant group in South Africa (whites before, blacks now) has traditionally been driven to a significant degree by fear. In the 1930s white South African politics was consumed by the fear of miscegenation and race intermixture. Today, black South Africans are kept from voting for the Democratic Alliance by an equally irrational and unfounded fear of that party returning South Africa to apartheid (something the ANC deliberately stokes in their canvassing.)

This does not mean that South Africans don't have anything to worry about, just that their fears have often been wholly misdirected. As Rian Malan noted in the Mail & Guardian last week: "South Africans ought to be obsessed by one question only: what went wrong in the rest of Africa and how do we avoid the same fate?" What South Africans arguably need to most fear in this regard is less some peculiarly African pathology and more a powerful and enduring Western racialism. If South Africa is to escape the fate of the rest of the continent a great deal will depend on whether it has the innate strength to counteract it.

It has not done too well so far. The racial policies implemented by the ANC under the direction of Thabo Mbeki required that all institutions - at all levels - reduce the proportion of white South Africans to their marginal percentage of the population. This project has required racial discrimination against ‘whites' in employment, university admissions, government contracts and tenders, and so on.

Such policies have largely succeeded in driving white South Africans out of the public sector - with disastrous consequences for state capacity - but progress in the private sector has been more uneven. The reason for this disparity is simple. As The Economist's Robert Guest noted back in 2004, "Unlike private companies, the government finds it easy to hire by race rather than merit, because it has no competitors and cannot go bust. This is nice for the blacks it employs, but less good for the much larger number who depend on the state for health care, water, roads and pensions. The state does not even try to deliver these services cost-effectively." Before their defeat at Polokwane the Mbeki-ites were planning to pass an Expropriation Bill the main purpose of which was (again) to reduce ‘white ownership' of the economy and commercial agricultural to that group's proportion of the population.

There were always two powerful grounds for objecting to the Mbeki-ite racial agenda. The first is that there have been many other countries in Africa where such ‘Africanisation' measures have been implemented; and the economic consequences have invariably been disastrous for black and non-black alike. The second is that the principle being applied - that of ‘demographic representivity' - has an impeccably racist European pedigree.

This idea, that it is unacceptable for a racial minority to take up a share of any centre of power or influence greater than its proportion of the population, was central to European anti-Semitism in the 1930s. For a minority to excel beyond the limits of its demographic confines was regarded as abnormal, intolerable, and a product purely of the exploitation of others. This principle was invoked by the NSDAP in Germany in their anti-Jewish propaganda in 1934 (see here) and it subsequently spread across Europe. Its influence even extended down to the southern tip of Africa. One convert, at least for a while, was the editor of Die Transvaler, Hendrik Verwoerd (see here for his 1937 treatise on the topic). In 1938 - under pressure from Nazi Germany - Hungary passed the "first Jewish law" to correct the problem of Jewish ‘dominance' of the economy and professions. The provisions of which were as follows:

"Industrial and commercial undertakings and banking houses employing more than ten persons are given five, or in certain years ten, years in which to adjust the proportion of employees and of salaries, bonuses and so on, to conform with the general rule that does not allow the Jewish share under any of these headings to exceed twenty percent of the total. In chambers of industry and commerce and in the legal, medical, and engineering professions, new Jewish members will be admitted at the rate of only five percent, until the Jewish population is reduced to the limit of twenty percent."

Similar legislation was passed in Slovakia in 1939. One aim of this law was, an American diplomat noted at the time, to limit Jewish "participation in the free professions....The problems connected with the role of the Jews in the medical profession, with Jewish predominance in business and finance, and with Jewish ownership of land still remain for future legislative treatment."

Having excluded Jews from public service in a statute 1940, in 1941 Vichy France passed another to settle "the role it is appropriate" for Jews to play in their "private activity in the national economy." One history of the period describes how a "massive purge of Jews from the liberal professions, commerce, the crafts, and industry" followed. "The first statute had promised to impose a numerus clausus in the liberal professions; this project was now implemented by a veritable assembly-line production of decrees of application between June and December 1941. Jews were limited to 2 percent of one profession after another - medicine, law, pharmacy, and so on: and Jews were limited as students to 3 percent in institutions of higher education."

It was not just those living under Nazi occupation who had become obsessed with the ‘Jewish question.' Following the liberation of French North Africa the allied leaders met at Casablanca in January 1943. According to an official account of the meeting US President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed that "the number of Jews engaged in the practice of the professions (law, medicine, etc.) should be definitely limited to the percentage that the Jewish population in North Africa bears to the whole of the North African population." The aim of Roosevelt's plan was, apparently, to "further eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany, namely, that while they represented a small part of the population over fifty percent of the lawyers, doctors, school teachers, college professors, etc. in Germany were Jews."

The defeat of Nazi Germany, the discovery of the extermination camps, and (perhaps) the establishment of the state of Israel, all worked to discredit such anti-Semitism post 1945. Yet, although Jews were no longer regarded as a legitimate target ‘demographic representivity' endured as a Western ideal. This old anti-Semitic principle proceeded to be heated up and dished out to one productive racial minority after another in Africa following the retreat of Empire. This was usually done with the encouragement and connivance of much Western intellectual opinion. It was moreover Western educated African nationalists like Robert Mugabe - black white racists - who were the most ruthless advocates of this doctrine. Thus, although the targets have shifted over the years, this particular strand of Western racialism has endured up to today.

There was an illustration earlier this week of how powerful and accepted it remains in the West. Every year the US Department of State publishes its country reports on human rights practices. Each report has a section covering the issue of discrimination - if any - against "national/racial/ethnic minorities" in that country. Presumably, the intention is that if the government of a particular nation deprives citizens of a minority group of the right to equal treatment - and discriminates against them - this should be flagged as an issue of concern.

However, in the country report on South Africa published on Wednesday this week this is all turned on its head. The relevant section notes, accurately if somewhat euphemistically, that "the law requires employers with 50 or more employees to ensure" that those "legally defined as ‘Blacks' (including ‘Africans,' ‘Colored,' and ‘Asians,' and collectively constituting more than 90 percent [sic] of the country's population) are represented adequately at all levels of the workforce." In other words, the ‘white' share should ideally not be allowed to exceed ten percent of the total. Yet far from seeing the application of this principle as in any way problematic the report makes clear that it regards such "antidiscrimination legislation" (!) as necessary and desirable.

Indeed, it is the continued ‘overrepresentation' of the white minority in the higher activities of the economy is seen as the problem - not the discriminatory measures being used to displace them (or the deleterious consequences that result). According to the report's moral narrative government efforts to push the white minority out of private sector employ have not proceeded fast or far enough. Notwithstanding this legislation, it states, the Department of Labour's 2007 Employment Equity Analysis "reported that Blacks remained underrepresented, particularly at the professional and managerial levels. According to the report, only 22.2 percent of top management positions, and approximately 36.5 percent of professional positions, were held by Blacks, and Black women remained by far the most disadvantaged group in number and quality of management or skilled jobs."

The report predictably makes no mention of the purge of non-black South Africans from state employment throughout the Mbeki-era, or the racial quotas that have been applied in the universities during the same period. One could of course dismiss this report of being of little consequence. But this would be a mistake. Those South Africans opposed to racial discrimination in the apartheid era, and who believed in a basic community of interests between black and white, could always look to Western opinion for external moral and intellectual affirmation. Clearly, no such luxury exists today.

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