Last week Geordin Hill-Lewis, shadow finance minister in the Democratic Alliance (DA), wrote that South Africa was "trapped" in an "obsession with race-based transformation policies". These prevented the country from "attracting investment, driving growth, and creating jobs". The "Eskom debacle" showed how the "elevation of racial redress above all other priorities has the most devastating effect on the poor".
Unfortunately, however, Mr Hill-Lewis then went on to confuse this accurate analysis with the suggestion that "over time an alternative will become an attractive option". What, precisely, are he and his party waiting for? Why is his colleague John Steenhuisen, running for the party leadership, also sending out mixed messages to the effect that "we must confidently evangelise non-racialism, while maintaining our commitment to redress" (which sounds like continuing to use race as a "proxy")?
The retreat from apartheid began 46 years ago, when the National Party (NP) government accorded to black African workers the same rights to go on strike as had long been enjoyed by white, coloured, and Indian workers. Forty years ago, black Africans were given the same statutory trade union rights as other workers. Not long after that, the pass laws were repealed. The Group Areas and Land Acts were repealed in 1991, and finally, of course, full franchise rights came into operation in 1994. The disentangling of "race" from "disadvantage" is a process that has been under way for nearly half a century.
And it has continued. Four years ago Jeff Radebe, minister in the presidency, said that the number of black middle-class South Africans had risen from 300 000 in 1994 to around five million. White people now account for only a third of all those covered by medical aids. Whites are in the minority in former whites-only fee-charging schools. There are now 1.41 black Africans with university degrees for every white person with such a degree. Black Africans account for more than 60% of skilled technical staff throughout the economy.
They own almost eight times as many homes as whites do. For several years now whites have accounted for fewer than half of suburban property purchases. For every white household using electricity for heating there are five black African households using it. Mr Steenhuisen himself recently noted that Eskom had more than 48 000 staff members earning on average more than R780 000 a year. And the finance minister, Tito Mboweni, said in his budget statement last month that the country had more than 29 000 politicians and public servants earning an average of more than R1 million a year each. The great majority of these, as of the top earners at Eskom and elsewhere in the public sector, are likely to be black Africans.
All of these figures show that continuing to use race as a "proxy" for disadvantage is misleading and anachronistic. Not only that, promoting "redress" via race-based "employment equity" targets has done immense harm to the entire public sector, including health care, water supply, schooling, and the criminal justice system. Among the consequences have been anaemic investment, slow growth, and rising unemployment.
The government run by the African National Congress (ANC) nevertheless intends to intensify its racial "redress" policies. These will do further damage to the economy and the public sector, on whom the truly disadvantaged rely more heavily than do the actual beneficiaries of redress.
It is true that the great majority of the jobless, the sick, the illiterate, and the poor are black. It is also true that most of those living in shacks and shanties are black. But irrespective of whether their plight is the result of lingering NP or current ANC policies or a combination of both, what they need is policies that will help fix their current problems.
They do not need government humbug about racial "redress" policies that perpetuate their problems while benefiting an elite. There is no need for race in any policies targeted directly at these problems, any more than race is a factor in South Africa's extensive income redistribution system via taxation.
The ANC knows very well what it is doing. Race-based "redress" policies enable current problems to be blamed on colonialism and apartheid rather than on the ANC's own policies. Race-based "redress" also provides the cover for pursuing the ideology of demographic proportionality, which is intrinsic to the envisaged national democratic revolution.
In other words, the ANC is not trapped in an "obsession with race-based transformation policies". Like the NP of old, it is using race for strategic political advantage. A measure of its success in this regard is that the bulk of the commentariat, some in the DA, and many in the business community have endorsed its "race-based transformation policies".
Mr Steenhuisen says he wants to "confidently evangelise non-racialism while maintaining commitment to redress and reconciliation". It would be more consistent to evangelise non-racialism while explaining how colour-blind policies are the best means of tackling current disadvantage. Mr Hill-Lewis seems willing to wait for an "alternative" to "racial obsessions" to come along. It has already come along with the steady erosion of racial barriers, while opinion surveys by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) dating back nearly 20 years show that unemployment, education, corruption, and crime far outweigh race in the concerns of ordinary people. The DA should capitalise on this, not wait for something to turn up.
The party would be in a much stronger position in hammering ANC failures and putting forward alternative policies if it finally divested itself of the confusing and unnecessary "proxy" story.
* 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.