Nobody should be surprised that the recent decision of the Democratic Alliance (DA) to reject race as a means of classifying people has attracted so much hostility in the communications media.
It has been clear for years now that the racial thinking of the African National Congress (ANC) has captured the hearts and minds of a great many members of the commentariat, both in the print media and on the Internet. The same is true of academia, non-governmental organisations, donor agencies, business, and the diplomatic corps.
The ANC, with the support of its communist and trade union allies, has actually pulled off an extraordinary intellectual feat. Its proclaimed commitment to non-racialism helped to win it massive political and financial support around the world in its quest for power. But even before the end of Nelson Mandela’s term of office as president of the country, the ANC had enacted the first of a series of affirmative action laws that have steadily undermined both non-racialism and the principle of equality before the law. This process attracted remarkably little opposition.
Ritualistically proclaiming the mantra of its commitment to non-racism, the ANC led the country by the nose in the opposite direction as more and more racial preferencing requirements were implemented in the public sector and imposed on the private sector. For the first time in its history dating back to 1929, the Institute of Race Relations was asked by corporate giving departments to provide racial breakdowns of its staff (which we refused to do).
So extensively has the ideology of affirmative action permeated South Africa that there is now cynicism and even outrage when the DA, after a long detour, proclaims its commitment to two of the very principles on which the post-apartheid era was supposedly founded: non-racialism and equality before the law. The party, so we are told, has adopted “race denialism”, “turned Trumpian”, its “ideological purity collides with South African reality”, and its “liberalism” is now dressed in quotation marks. Bizarre.
The idea that it is possible for “disadvantage” to be dealt with using objective social and economic criteria rather than the crude one of race is scornfully dismissed. Conveniently forgotten is that nearly a quarter of a century’s worth of affirmative action policies are one of the main causes of this country’s social and economic ills: a crippled public sector, the wrecking of Eskom and other state-owned enterprises, massive unemployment, anaemic investment, economic stagnation, intensifying despair, rampant crime, languid prosecutions, and a public schooling system that has betrayed the hopes and aspirations of millions of young people.
Affirmative action is supposedly necessary to redress the effects of apartheid. But, as we all know, it has merely replaced one type of apartheid with another: a rich and corrupt black ruling class sitting astride a multi-racial middle class and vast numbers of hungry, homeless, waterless, and illiterate poor, most of them black and most of them without opportunity to improve their lot.
Yet the insinuation is made that the DA, in proclaiming its intention to use a different approach, cares more for the white minority and white privilege than for the majority of South Africans. Also bizarre.
Given that identity politics is gaining ground in many countries, the DA’s adoption of non-racialism is timely. It is also a courageous example of political and moral leadership. In addition, it marries sound principle with practicality and experience, because 25 years of ANC policy using race as a proxy has proved to be unfair, unjust, and counter-productive. Race has indeed been less of a “proxy” for dealing with “disadvantage” than as an excuse for the ANC to impose its ideological agenda of demographic proportionality under the pretext of bringing about “redress”.
All of South Africa’s social and economic problems, whether inherited from the past or the result of more recent policies, can be tackled without using race as a proxy for anything. We need faster growth, more investment, better public schooling and health care, more housing, more jobs, more entrepreneurship, safer public transport, reliable water and electricity, less crime, and much more opportunity. The ANC’s exploitation of race, and the commentariat’s obsession with it, are distractions which are not only counter-productive but wholly unnecessary. Banging on about colonialism and/or apartheid and/or race achieves absolutely nothing for the poor. Zilch.
The DA has for too long also been distracted by the “race is a proxy” argument. It should not allow media hostility to deflect it from its renewed commitment to the profoundly important principles of non-racialism and equality before the law. They were, after all, the ideals which inspired millions of people to oppose apartheid.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.