Economic justice doesn’t require racial classification

Cilliers Brink says race-based policies continue to undermine SA's interests

Speech delivered by Cilliers Brink MP in a debate about non-racialism and social cohesion in the National Assembly on 19 November 2020. 

Today the meaning of non-racialism is contested, but the Democratic Alliance (DA) believes that it shouldn’t be.

If South Africa is an open society then non-racialism must mean exactly what it says:

That this society will not assign rights and duties to people based on race.

That the law and the state will not treat individuals as group representatives.

That nobody will be subjected to the degrading practice of racial classification.

We are either an open society, or we are a tribalistic society.

We can’t pretend to be an open society, and hope to share in the economic benefits that have historically acquired to such societies, while hanging onto the tenants of tribalism.

Neither is tribalism a cure for economic injustice and exclusion.

Apartheid was a form of institutionalised tribalism.

What Verwoerd tried to do was freeze in time and space the divisions, prejudices and economics of the 19th century, even as the ground was shifting beneath his feet.

Not only did the system of racial classification and discrimination deny individual freedom and agency, it also denied the economic interests that people have in common across lines and bars of colour.

Today the ANC’s argument is that to undo the harm of apartheid we need to re-trace its steps, including using racial classification and race-based policy.

Many people outside of politics – in business, the professions and academia – have come to accept this idea of racialism while calling it non-racialism.

But the contradiction is starting to show.

Here in post-apartheid South Africa a Cape Town advocate who happens to be black and female cannot serve on the Legal Practice Council because the quota for her group has been exceeded.

A netball team has to stop playing and forfeit a match because for a moment there were too many black players on the court.

Companies that want to do business with government are disqualified from even placing bids because too many of their shareholders come from racial minorities.

This happens at a time when municipalities and other organs of state need all of the skills and expertise they can procure to keep the lights on and the water flowing.

Other examples of where shared South African interests are undermined by racial policies abound, from purges of engineers at Eskom to an empowerment partner in a state contract being appointed on the recommendation of a cabinet minister.

These policies and laws don’t achieve redress.

They divide South Africans, destroy social capital and in fact undermine the ability of the state to play a developmental role.

They try to freeze in time and space the divisions, the prejudices and the ideology of a bygone era, even as the ground is shifting beneath our feet.

The DA proposes an alternative.

We believe that the choice between non-racialism and redress is a false one.

We can be a society that rejects race-based policy and a society that fights for economic justice and inclusion.

Redress policies do not require people to tick an “African” box or “coloured” box, or any other box, in order to be effective.

If we look at people’s circumstances we can get a far better impression of actual disadvantage.

Using non-racial redress policy, we can measure our progress against human development goals.  

This will break the exclusionary pattern of a small elite being benefitted over and over to the exclusion of those who are really in need.

The last point is about cohesion, something we can nurture if leaders stopped treating life in this country as if it were a racial zero-sum game.

Broad social cohesion - across different groups and classes - has significant economic benefits.

When people trust each other, care for each other and feel a shared sense of destiny they sacrifice more and invest more instead of constantly hedging their bets about the future.

Recently California, the most diverse of the United States, voted in record numbers for two propositions. First, to elect Joe Biden as president. Second, to uphold a constitutional ban on racial discrimination, whether such discrimination be of a positive or negative nature.

We can’t compare ourselves to California in every respect, but maybe as one open society to another they send an important message about the meaning of non-racialism.

Cilliers Brink MP
DA Deputy Shadow Minister of Cooperative Governance & Traditional Affairs