Save the wit ous

William Saunderson-Meyer on what the experience of Unterhalter, Arrie Rautenbach, and De Ruyter say about SA


Three talented men, respected by their peers. All three were recently in the headlines. 

David Unterhalter, Arrie Rautenbach, and André De Ruyter. All three illustrate — in the judiciary, the private sector and the state sector — a troubling phenomenon, a country that is moving from racial redress to racial retribution. It’s no longer about the inclusion of the previously disadvantaged but the punitive exclusion of the formerly privileged. 

Like so many grand designs that produce squalid outcomes, this disastrous state of affairs comes from good intentions. In the late-1990s, when the African National Congress government started to apply its “transformation” mechanisms, based on gradations of skin hue, those at the apex of the old order — white men — suddenly found themselves at the very bottom of the new order.

This was wryly encapsulated in a riff on a ubiquitous bumper sticker of the time. This implored South Africans to save the rhino from extinction at the hands of poachers. The riposte read: “Never mind the rhino. Save the wit ou.”

What added unintentionally to the humour was that these white okes, on the whole, were managing far better than the lumbering rhino to evade their stalkers.

Part of this was that most of the wit ous had come to terms with reality. There was a reluctant but widespread acceptance among whites that racial inclusion was not only a moral imperative but a matter of their and the country’s survival. They understood that unless all races were seated at the banquet, the table would eventually be upended. 

But it was also assumed by whites that the process would be based on two things. First, the table would be steadily enlarged to achieve a more equitable seating arrangement. Second, the white seats ceded would be by natural attrition and based on like-for-like substitution. In other words, no blanket exclusions and selection of black replacement would be based on ability, not cadre deployment and nepotism.

So, although the sun was setting, it appeared to be setting slowly. Historically high levels of education and experience gave whites, at least in the corporate world, some kind of protection. 

In the private sector, the emphasis was on upskilling, mentoring and replacing white expertise, as closely as was possible in an accelerated process, with equivalent black expertise. All, in turn, are further sliced and diced into correct portions of gender and disability.

In the public sector, which lacks the financial-survival imperative of privately owned businesses, it was more brutal. In the civil service and state-owned entities (SOEs), early retirement and fake redundancies wiped out, virtually overnight, entire institutional memories. 

The results are clear to see in a state sector that is now over-staffed, over-paid and catastrophically dysfunctional, as well as a parastatal sector that, virtually across the board, is bankrupt. But in spite of 28-years of accumulated evidence that a race-quota mindset in a skills-short economy has not improved but instead damaged the prospects for sustainable transformation and social justice, the ANC has simply repeatedly upped the ante. 

Legislatively this has meant an ongoing slew of new regulations, with more in the pipeline, to make the race quotas stricter and the penalties harsher. Businesses not complying will be fined substantial proportions of their turnover. During the pandemic, business support grants in tourism were based not on need but on racial criteria, with the stated intention of remodelling the sector.

The tone, too, has changed. Political discourse has moved far from that envisaged by the ANC in its founding document, the Freedom Charter, as a “South Africa [that] belongs to all who live in it, black and white”.

The plight of the three men referred to earlier illustrates this drift to the kind of crude, racist reductionism that was previously the sole preserve of the ANC’s hated predecessor, the National Party.

André De Ruyter is something of an anomaly in that he is one of fewer than a handful of white Afrikaners appointed by the ANC to be in charge of anything. In 2020, he was plucked by President Cyril Ramaphosa from the CEO position in a major corporate, to try to pull Eskom out of its death dive. He became Eskom’s 14th CEO in 20 years, of whom 12 were black, one was white, and all were ditched because they were incompetent and/or implicated in corruption.

God knows why De Ruyter would accept such a poisoned chalice — he is one of those guys who talks earnestly about duty — but from day one at Eskom, he has been the target of a relentless campaign to oust him. 

Part of it springs from his attempts to rid Eskom of corrupt ANC-deployed cadres. This inevitably gave rise to accusations by those he had before disciplinary hearings that he was a racist Boer who was replacing skilled black executives and engineers with his white pals.  

Being exonerated by the Eskom board-appointed investigator, a prominent black advocate, of racism, irregular appointments, poor governance, and unlawful procurement practices, hasn’t ended the campaign. De Ruyter remains the target of a constant stream of racial abuse that would not be tolerated for a moment on the social media platforms where it appears, were it directed by whites against a black CEO.

The kind of political interference that was once confined to state entities is now widespread in the private sector. Last week it was the appointment of Arrie Rautenbach as CEO of financial services group Absa that angered the race warriors. Rautenbach’s appointment ended a year-long leadership vacuum following the abrupt departure of Danie Mminele, Absa’s fourth CEO in three years and its first black one. 

In response, the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), which holds a 5.4% stake, demanded an urgent meeting with the Absa board to express its “downright disappointment” over Rautenbach’s appointment. This was a “missed opportunity … to advance diversity, inclusivity, racial and gender equity at a senior level”. 

The Black Management Forum (BMF) also piled in. It was particularly irked that Rautenbach’s appointment had been made “by a predominantly black board which has not ensured that a black CEO be appointed”. Despite Absa having a black board, the BMF said Rautenbach’s appointment clearly was made to maintain “white male power” at the bank. 

Neither of these organisations seems to have the slightest interest in who is best able to achieve at Absa the primary objective of any business — to grow and make shareholders, like the PIC, richer. And as with De Ruyter at Eskom, there are strident voices that would apparently prefer to see a faltering or failed entity, rather than a successful one run by a pale male.

Finally, there is Advocate David Unterhalter SC whose undisputed brilliance as a legal scholar appears destined to be perpetually thwarted by the burden of not only being white but Jewish. This week, for the third time, he failed to be recommended to the president as a possible appointment to the Constitutional Court.

During his previous appearances before the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), the bigotry and stereotyping were palpable. Aside from the issues of race and gender, Unterhalter was smeared as a Zionist — by implication, a monstrous devourer of small Palestinian children — solely on the basis of having briefly been a member of the august SA Jewish Board of Deputies. 

This week’s JSC hearing, under the steadying hand of the new Chief Justice, Raymond Zondo, was less openly hostile but this doesn’t mean that the bigotry had disappeared. The JSC has to make three more recommendations to the president than there are ConCourt vacancies. There are two vacancies to be filled on the 11-person Bench — currently made up of nine black justices, of whom four are female — so five recommendations were needed. 

But since the shortlist was five, the dropping of Unterhalter means only one vacancy can be filled. There will be two whites contending for that position, both of whom were quizzed on whether their melanin deficiencies should not, by definition, exclude them from appointment. 

Advocate Alan Dodson’s reply to Julius Malema was short and simple: “I am an African,” Dodson told the Economic Freedom Front leader. “In terms of the numerical answer, I don’t think transformation is only about numbers. Of course it has nothing to do with the fact that I am white and male. I explained my position at the previous interview. I don’t want to cover that ground again.”

Western Cape Judge Owen Rogers told the JSC that he though the Bench of 11 justices too small and too important to allow anything along the lines of a quota to determine who was chosen.

These are just three recent examples of what is now a common phenomenon. This kind of unapologetically anti-white racism marches in lockstep with our economic decline. When the economic pie is not growing, it’s impossible for distribution to be anything but punitive. Those hungering for a slice are becoming more belligerent in elbowing aside others to do so.

If there is any lesson to be learnt from our history is that race is a crude tool and a blunt instrument. Societies that rely on it to achieve social justice are quickly confronted with its toxic limitations.

In South Africa, our race obsession has not only failed to untangle historical injustices, but it is now also inadvertently and irretrievably damaging the ties that bind peoples into a nation. 

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