Why real black empowerment is essential

Douglas Gibson says that for the sake of stability ordinary people need a stake in society

More than fifty years ago, Dr Frans Cronje MP made many speeches calling for the creation of a black middle class in South Africa. “Give people something to lose and they will help maintain stability,” was his call.

That Frans Cronje was the grandfather of the current CEO of the SA Institute of Race Relations, also Dr Frans Cronje, and he was, amazingly now, both the Opposition Spokesman on Finance in Parliament and at the same time the chairman of SA Breweries and Nedbank.

The earlier Frans Cronje was essentially calling for the economic empowerment of black people as a bulwark against the social and economic upheaval that could follow if they continued living in poverty and deprivation. Fifty years later, that necessity has not changed. He was quite correct then in his view and it remains valid even as a good deal of progress has been made. A survey last year by Stellenbosch University estimated that the number of middle class people had grown from 300,000 in 1993 to over 3 million today.

That is not nearly enough, however. What of the poverty-stricken millions who have nothing to lose? We need far more empowerment but not the bribe-based black economic empowerment of the elite as espoused by Mr Mzwanele (Jimmy that was) Manyi and his aspirant trough feeders. The South African economy, for fairness and for the stability of our constitutional democracy demands active steps to empower – not the elite - but the millions who have been left behind.

One Nation South Africans work continually to promote the idea that this land is for all who live in it; the policies of the government at every level ought to be used to promote unity, fairness, and the right of all our citizens to equality, dignity and respect. Equality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms.

Unskilled poor people with no stake in society, cannot achieve the promise of our Constitution for themselves or their children and they therefore have no stake in upholding it. Recognising this, the Constitution provides that to promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination may be taken.

This is where Affirmative Action (AA) comes in. Some people, usually whites, state that affirmative action is discrimination in reverse. It is not, if it is properly applied. AA should encompass steps taken to level the playing field so that people may be brought to the stage where they are able thereafter to compete reasonably equally. Billionaire Patrice Motsepe’s children are certainly able to compete and AA applied to them because they are black would unfairly discriminate against white competitors.

Other steps must be taken to uplift our people educationally and economically. Our education outcomes are shockingly poor and unacceptable, leaving millions unable to compete. The number of registered taxpayers which was 1.7 million in 1994, now numbers 13.7 million but most of the tax is paid by a relative handful of those. We need many more to pay for the most advanced social welfare net in any emerging economy.

The most obvious way of economically empowering the masses is to ensure that there are jobs for them. Government policies have led to stagnation, minuscule growth, and the world’s highest unemployment rate. Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Even more of the same is the ANC response, instead of alternatives enabling us to improve our people’s lives.

The government refers disparagingly to white monopoly capital, with the accent on “white.” This fails to recognise that the tiny white community, now 8% of the electorate, is a highly productive, law-abiding and job-creating community without which there would be very little tax income to pay the 10 million recipients the 17 million social welfare grants or keep the wheels of government turning. That contribution continues to be immense and enables us to rescue millions from the most abject poverty. That is no mean achievement.

Then there is the land question as part of economic empowerment. This used to be the favourite of the PAC but it is popular now with both the EFF and the ANC. Both refuse to recognise that South Africa is no longer a rural country. Of course, rural land redistribution should continue, within the bounds of the Constitution, rectifying wrongs of the past where this is practical and reasonable and bearing our food security in mind. It would be hopeless if all our productive farms became subsistence agricultural areas.

 Our people are now largely urban, living on small plots of ground, mostly belonging to municipalities. Why not give them the ground they live on? That would be the most meaningful economic empowerment measure in our history and upwards of five million owners would benefit, bringing them into the modern economy.

Because of the obvious failure of government economic and land policies, it is fashionable in the ANC, led by President Zuma, to talk about radical economic transformation and to plead for expropriation without compensation. Some cooler heads like Dr Zweli Mkhize have tried to bring some sense to bear. Mkhize was recently quoted in Business Day as saying it was not necessary to change the Constitution to deal with land reform. “I believe a lot of progress can be made within the existing Constitution – maybe with one or other legislation – but within the Constitution, we (have) a lot that can be done and achieved.” Dr Blade Nzimande said also that the SACP would not support “radical looting.”

Before the populists get their way, it is essential that we tackle sensible economic empowerment with energy and determination. That is both fair and right.

A former opposition chief whip and ambassador to Thailand, follow Douglas Gibson at www.douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com

This article first appeared in Beeld.