Former Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille has provoked outrage among the usual suspects by equating "black privilege" with "looting and then getting re-elected". One journalist suggested she had flown into a "rant", another that she had been on a "three-day Twitter binge".
What Ms Zille wrote on Daily Maverick a fortnight ago was unexceptionable, however: "It is fallacious to present the key issue in South Africa as a dichotomy between 'black poverty' and 'white privilege'. The face of privilege has been transformed by a predatory ANC/EFF elite that has looted the country and set us on the road to ruin. The DA should not pander to this analysis."
This is a clear rebuke to the leader of her party, who regularly punts this analysis.
Last week Mmusi Maimane was at it again. White South Africans, he said, needed to be "cognisant of the fact that the majority of people who are left out are black South Africans". That most of those left out are black is true. But if unemployment is one measure of exclusion, then Mr Maimane himself needs to be cognisant of the fact that it is thanks to the policies of a black government that unemployment since 1994 has risen from 3.67 million to 10 million. It is on the watch of that same government that inequality among black Africans has risen. It is also on the watch of that government that teacher absenteeism has become a major problem, thanks to a black trade union to which that black government habitually kowtows.
Whites were of course enormously privileged by the apartheid system. The privilege of the whites-only franchise led inexorably to a host of other privileges, including the industrial colour bar, trade union rights withheld from black Africans, property rights denied to others, and grossly discriminatory spending on school education. Even though this discrimination has gone, some of the benefits of privilege no doubt linger. But efforts to counter it by reverse racial preferencing have created a privileged black class at the cost of ruining most of the public sector, wrecking economic growth, and perpetuating exclusion and unemployment.
The implication that relative white wealth or other forms of success is the result only or mainly of privilege is misleading, however. It ignores all the other ingredients.
One of these is education. Jacob Zuma pointed out nearly ten years ago that "teachers in former whites-only schools teach in class for an average of 6.5 hours a day, while teachers in schools in disadvantaged communities teach for around 3.5 hours a day", resulting in "unequal outcomes". Six weeks ago the minister of basic education released the findings of a survey to the effect that teacher absenteeism has gone up since then from 8% to 10%. She had previously reported that 80% of schools were "dysfunctional".
White parents would never tolerate this. Why do many black parents and a black government tolerate it? Why does a largely black electorate tolerate it?
Take white farmers, regularly accused by politicians of having stolen their land. Last year the Transvaal Agricultural Union issued a timely reminder about this land. "It is productive land, not because it is 'the best land', as is often declared, but because its productivity has been wrestled from bare veld from some of the world's most arid conditions, with lower-than-world-average rainfall, crippling droughts, and no perennial rivers."
Whites may have been privileged, they may have benefited from cheap labour. But their success has also been built on making sure their children get decent education, as well as on hard work and sheer grit. It has been built on mobilising the savings of ordinary people to build companies such as Sanlam. It has also been built on risk-taking entrepreneurship. And however cruel the apartheid system was, neither the National Party government nor any of its predecessors practised the systematic looting that has become the hallmark of rule by the African National Congress (ANC).
Perpetuating the white privilege/black victimhood dichotomy is anachronistic. By scapegoating whites, it exonerates the ANC. It legitimates policies that perpetuate poverty and exclusion. Worst of all, it creates the impression that the path to success is simply to reverse the privilege, ignoring all the other more important ingredients. That will do great damage to the people it is supposedly designed to help.
* 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.