Over the past few weeks there has been much strange commentary by the transformationists in response to the Democratic Alliance’s recent pivot back towards liberal non-racialism. One of the strangest claims of all, however, is that liberals pretend that ‘race suddenly doesn’t matter’ or claim that it is irrelevant in understanding where South Africa is today.
The liberal position has always been that ‘race’ certainly does matter: It is a poison. It is also highly relevant to understanding our current predicament, given the fantastic damage done by the racial policies of the transformationists – in pursuit of their ideal of perfect demographic representivity - to the country’s institutions and economic prospects post-1995.
One of the great difficulties of engaging race conscious people in debate is that you are questioning not just a point of view, or an opinion, or even an ideology, but their entire view of the world. This is especially so once their racial ideology is actually put into practice, and then progressively extended into all areas of life. They don’t believe, in other words, that their view is just one of many different ways of looking at the world, they believe it is the only correct and legitimate way of looking at the world.
This syndrome whereby race consciousness blinds a person to reality, while making them think their racially distorted view of the world is the only true one, can be best described as ‘racial blindedness’. It was certainly characteristic of white attitudes through the apartheid period. As older white South Africans will remember statutory racial preferment is like a free lunch served with the knowledge that someone else has had to go hungry. It is at once both psychologically affirming and morally discomforting.
While people may become quickly very wedded to being on the inside track racially they deal with this moral discomfort by developing this blindedness to the negative effects on others. "One of the most remarkable facts," C.W. de Kiewiet wrote of South Africa in 1964, "is the manner in which the great range of discriminatory laws and the severity of their application to [black] Africans are masked and submerged. They seem to exist at a lower level of comprehension and significance, like automobile accidents.”
The great role the liberals performed through this period - in the press, universities, parliament, and in the reports and surveys of the South African Institute for Race Relations for example - was in always bringing to the surface, documenting, and contesting, all the cruelties and absurdities of apartheid-era racial discrimination. The quality of the liberal critique was quite astounding at times. De Kiewiet’s own “Anatomy of South African Misery”, published in 1957, is an extraordinary piece of political writing, up there with any of George Orwell’s essays.
The liberal view was that racial discrimination was destructive not just to those it was applied against, but to the common good as well. Non-racialism meanwhile meant the abolition of racial discrimination. For instance, the 1962 handbook of the Liberal Party stated that it was a non-racial party, with non-racial policies. It believed “that non-racialism is the only sure foundation for a multi-racial society of such complexity as ours, and that our problem can only be dealt with by people of all groups working together.”
It stated that the colour bar, then entrenched in job reservation laws as well as the practices of white unions, results “not only in the exclusion of non-white people from many skilled occupations, but also in the existence of excessive differences between skilled and unskilled rates of pay. In the long run, the colour bar benefits neither black nor white workers. It stifles ability and kills incentive.” The party’s policy was to abolish the colour bar “by repealing existing restrictive legislation and by making discrimination on grounds of colour illegal. Opportunities for advancement must depend on merit alone.”
In exactly the same year the emerging ANC/SACP leadership, that took over from Albert Luthuli, adopted a quite different programme in the form of the National Democratic Revolution. This envisaged the imminent seizure of power by armed force, the imposition of a vigorous and vigilant dictatorship, and strong discriminatory measures in favour of black Africans to ensure that all institutions were rapidly made “representative” of the overall population. Advancement under the NDR would depend on a combination of race and political reliability. If the ANC/SACP had managed to seize power, as they intended, they would have been able to implement this programme back then with the backing of the Soviet bloc. One of the main political models for communists at the time being what Sukarno and his allies in the PKI had achieved in Indonesia with their “anti-imperialist” policy in 1957/58.
The failure of the ANC/SACP to seize power as planned meant that the liberation movement was only able to come to office through a negotiated settlement, thirty years later. This was after the National Party government itself had abolished the colour bar in the early 1980s, and following the collapse of Communism, and the Soviet Union. As its strategy documents made clear the ANC always remained firmly committed to achieving the “objectives of the national democratic revolution” once it had finally worked its way into power. The implementation phase, as described here, began in 1996. Since then South Africans have lived under a hegemonic liberation movement fanatically dedicated to a programme of racial transformation – the enforcement of pure racial proportionality at all levels and in all fields of life, from children’s sports teams, to the judiciary, to Eskom.
The measure of any government, especially one that has been in power for decades, is not just what the state of the country is, but what it could have been, had different policies been followed. In a February 2000 speech the Democratic Party’s finance spokesperson, Ken Andrew, stated that his party believed that “sustainable job creation should be the Number One priority of economic policy in South Africa today. South Africa can and must get its economic growth rates up to 6% or more per year, otherwise we will not succeed in reducing unemployment and poverty. We dare not settle for less.”
“Bottle-necks on our growth path”, he noted, “are shortages of foreign reserves and skilled labour. Neither are insurmountable obstacles. What we need is more foreign direct investment, growing exports and rapid privatisation to reduce government debt and to increase our foreign reserves by billions of Rands, and a deliberate campaign to increase the supply of skilled people in our country by going out and attracting skilled immigrants and by channelling resources into developing skills within our society ranging from basic literacy through artisan training to tertiary education.”
One of the consequences of the “colour bar” was that it created an unnatural skills shortage in South Africa, that could only be filled through the immigration of skilled workers from Europe. In the late 1970s such immigration dried up and this placed an acute constraint on economic growth, and the ability of the country to provide sufficient employment to a rapidly growing (black) population. The sudden realisation of this was one of the main drivers of belated efforts at reform within the Afrikaner establishment.
Yet the primary yardstick by which the transformationists have measured their success – over the past two decades – is the degree to which they have rid the state, parastatals and private sector of high level (minority) technical, engineering and managerial expertise. This has resulted in an exodus of skilled people not just from these institutions, but from the country. Not even the ANC’s old idols in the German Democratic Republic were this insane when it came to economics. As Markus Wolf notes in his memoirs the reason why his government built an “antifascist protective barrier” around West Berlin in 1961 was precisely to put a stop to the huge exodus of skilled people from East to West Germany at the time. As he explains the rationale, the GDR was “hemorrrhaging its workforce, losing people who had cost money to train and whose contribution living standards would sink further. I felt that we were swimming through mud.”
The efforts to ‘transform’ the economy meanwhile, by forcing companies to hand over their shares to a politically connected elite, has been a massive deterrence to both domestic and foreign investment. As have recent efforts to accelerate the ‘transformation’ of property ownership through the push for Expropriation Without Compensation. It goes without saying the ANC’s policies to ‘transform’ education – from cadre deployment to ‘right sizing’ to OBE to Sadtufication - have been a disaster for the quality of schooling for the black and Coloured poor.
How would South Africa look today though if these ‘race denying’ liberals had got their way and the post-apartheid government had prioritised economic growth, and achieved the goal of 6% economic growth per annum by 2001? Holding all else equal the economy would now be three times the size that it was in 2000, and GDP per capita almost twice what it is today.
According to StatsSA there were 12,3m people in employment in South Africa in 2000. There were 3,7m unemployed, and another 1,5m discouraged work seekers, so 5,3m people unemployed on the expanded definition. Today StatSA estimates that 16,3m people are employed. The number of unemployed though has risen to 6,7m, and the number of discouraged work seekers to 2,7m. There are 9,4m people in other words who would like to work but are jobless. If a rapidly growing economy had generated job growth of 3% per annum since 2000 there would have been 21,6m people in employment today in South Africa, 5m more than there now actually are. If 4% job growth per annum had been achieved the country would be close to full employment.
Transformationists have been in political office in South Africa since 1994, and in control of the state and parastatals since 1996. They have always made up a considerable majority on the Constitutional Court since its establishment, and also managed to elbow their way into dominant positions in the media and the universities. Liberal proposals for positive change have been ignored, and their warnings disregarded. Publicly critiquing transformation has been career limiting, if not career death, in many fields.
Yet somehow racial ‘transformation’ is like the Schrödinger's cat of public debate in the English-language media. On the one hand, it is still said to be a non-negotiable, moral imperative; something that should be extended to all remaining areas of South African existence. To question its utility is to invite violent denunciation.
On the other hand, when one examines the lively debate around the causes of the current South African predicament, ‘transformation’ suddenly disappears. If it is referred to at all it is through cryptic and misleading euphemisms like ‘affirmative action’ and ‘redress’. We are apparently all meant to believe that this totalitarian policy, pursued over two decades by an electorally dominant liberation movement, in control of almost all levers of power, has absolutely nothing at all to do with the country’s current economic or institutional malaise.
This is obviously a ridiculous position, but not quite as ridiculous as then pretending that it is the liberals who are the ones in denial about the effects of ‘race’ and ‘racism’.