The problematic question of 'redress'

RW Johnson writes on whether it is possible to organise social policy on such a basis

Government policy since 1994 has been founded on the notion of “redress” - and opposition parties have embraced this notion too. Yet it is problematical in many respects, for almost the whole of human history qualifies for redress.

Homo sapiens has been around for 195,000 years and slavery was a normal part of life until less than 200 years ago. Even today it persists in the form of the trafficking of women and children: in 2012 the ILO estimated that 21 million people were living in this form of modern slavery.

Only in a few relatively enlightened countries have women escaped from patriarchal oppression. And man has been fearsomely cruel – tortures, burnings at the stake, men sent to a living death as galley slaves, the early Christians thrown to the lions – the list is endless. We have seen dreadful genocides and massacres even in our own time.

Almost none of the victims of these dreadful practices have received any form of redress. And nor will they because mainly they are dead. Moreover, there are too many of them and the elapse of history is taken to absolve later generations from responsibility. The key question is how far back should one go?

If we thought that we had to compensate for all the wrongs since 1652 in South Africa then redress would be focused mainly on the coloured community who, alone, suffered slavery. But although politicians often talk about remedying “400 years of oppression”, in practise they are not much interested in what the coloureds suffered before 1835.

Redress is not even unproblematical for those who suffered directly themselves. Medical negligence claims against South Africa's public health system now exceed R100 billion but no one imagines that most of this will be paid. There are many damning reports about the use of torture in South Africa's holding and prison cells but no move for redress.

Most dramatic of all, 365,000 HIV sufferers (mainly black women and children) died unnecessarily because of Mbeki's refusal to allow them access to ARVs. This was by far the greatest crime in modern South Africa, a genocide almost half the size of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. This crime was only possible because of the tacit support given to Mbeki's policies by ANC MPs and ministers – the only cabinet minister to oppose the policy publicly was Buthelezi.

Not only has no one been punished for this crime – indeed, the courts have shown not the slightest interest in the matter – but there has been no redress for the families who suffered this dreadful injustice. This is extraordinary. In Germany there are still old men in their nineties being hauled into court for their participation in a genocide which ended 75 years ago. And redress for medical calamities such as thalidomide or asbestos is absolutely standard elsewhere. The fact that South Africa ignores the whole issue of our recent local genocide suggests that there is no real belief in redress as such, merely in a particular political take on the matter.

The redress in everyone's mind is, of course, for the oppression of black, coloured and Indian people under apartheid. Of course, these groups were also oppressed prior to 1948 but that is already three generations ago and we have already established that one can only go back so far. However, the argument is made, surely with validity, that Africans were hugely and continuously disadvantaged by the 1913 Land Act. That's already four generations ago, but let's start with that.

An immediate point is that very few Africans born before 1950 are still alive. They bore the brunt of disadvantage throughout their lives but, sadly, redress for them is now impossible. Those still alive at least benefit from better (and racially equal) pensions but, overwhelmingly, they are poor. Moreover the median age of the South African population is only 27.4 years and for Africans it is lower still. So it is already true that about half of all Africans in South Africa were born after the end of apartheid.

Let us agree that everyone who suffered forced removal or whose career was stunted by job reservation or who suffered any other direct humiliation or injustice deserves redress. But even under apartheid there were many Africans who lived rural lives very much as their ancestors had and there were many workers who were not upwardly aspirant. It may be objected that they had inferior education and were housed far from their work but here one is on trickier ground.

Many Africans say Bantu Education was better than schooling today and there is little doubt that much township housing was superior to today's RDP houses. It is certainly true that under apartheid all Africans were treated as inferiors in their own country and that this was very wrong. The same was true of blacks in America but there is no programme of general redress there, merely the expansion of education and job opportunities which has created a black middle class.

What about the children of such people? If they grew up after apartheid their disadvantage is far less but nonetheless their life-chances were negatively affected in a host of ways by the restrictions operated against their parents. So let us agree that they deserve redress as well. What about the next generation?

At this point the argument becomes increasingly difficult: can one really organize social policy around the way one's grandparents were treated? And we are already there. An African child born in 1994 as a “born free” could well have had children by, say, 2015 and these are the grandchildren of the apartheid generation. Try asking black youngsters what apartheid was: they know almost nothing about it.

So although we may disagree exactly where the line should be drawn, we surely have to agree that there has to be a line. In which case policies like BEE and affirmative action should be seen as temporary expedients only. But in fact they are viewed as permanent fixtures. How can that be?

Does the ANC government believe that black people will be unequal forever? Of course it is true that today's Africans are badly disadvantaged by mass unemployment, lousy education and low economic growth. This is dreadful but such things are the result of ANC governance, not of apartheid. And in any case BEE and affirmative action can only help the already advantaged. They are of no use to the unemployed, domestic workers, farm workers, miners and so on.

Redress works best when it is for relatively small, targeted groups. But once it is generalised into treatment for a majority it is highly problematic. For that means organizing the whole society in defiance of meritocratic principles, which means organizing a society to fail. Given that South Africa is now into its sixth consecutive year of falling real incomes this point has to be taken very seriously.

A change away from the guiding principle of redress is thus inevitable. This government – or any government – will be forced to adopt a policy of growth at all costs for then a rising tide will lift all boats. One can already see this in Eskom's desperate search for properly qualified (rather than racially profiled) staff.

To persist with existing policies spells economic disaster. How long does the government think it can go on increasing unemployment without a social explosion? To be sure the government is full of knaves and incompetents. But are they also suicidal? Probably not. The real question is whether they are foolish enough to keep sailing into the eye of the storm or whether they will change course before mass discontent forces their hand. The bookies would probably say that they never lost money betting on the stupidity of government. No bets, please.

This article first appeared in Afrikaans in Rapport newspaper.