I have to admit that this is a bit of a rant.
I want to say up front that I’m in favor of affirmative action – at least in South Africa. Take any country which has minority races, minority language speakers, minority religious believers, and you’re going to find some sort of discrimination which will spill over into jobs. Even a country with one race, one religion and one language will still likely have an unfair distribution of wealth and senior positions between men and women. South Africa in the apartheid days, however, was one of the few countries where the discrimination was against the majority of the population and was institutionalized in laws and structures. In that context, it does seem fair that some real effort be made to address the imbalances and spread the opportunities more widely across the people.
But there are problems. Discrimination in the old regime had extended to schools also, and few black children had received decent primary or secondary education. Several local Universities (including Wits University) attempted to bridge this gap in various ways, and the results were positive, but not universally successful. So, in the early stages, many people were appointed to jobs for which they were inadequately skilled. This led to the conventional wisdom among whites that “these people are not capable of handling theses jobs”. (This is patently untrue, and "these people" is, of course, a euphemism.) Worse, it sometimes convinced the holders of the jobs that they were inadequate. Things have improved on that front, and people appointed to jobs now are usually appropriately trained or at worst able to cope. The reality is that seventeen years of more equal education has taken place. I say more equal because the school system is still very variable. Now it is a question of what you can pay and where you live rather than what color you are. The majority of the country’s people are not able to pay very much or move to a good area.
Unfortunately it is young white men who are taking much of the pain of affirmative action. While older people may be losing hoped for promotions, they are seldom losing their jobs. (Not for affirmative action reasons in any case.) But the economy is weak – like everywhere else – so there is now a scarcity of jobs. Even skilled white university leavers – accountants, scientists and engineers, for example – are finding the job market tough. But they are getting offers from other places like Australia and New Zealand, and we will miss them when (?) the economy turns around.
Well, no pain no gain etcetera. But now we come to the rant. The question now is if you are black enough. All women were regarded as discriminated against in the early stages, but soon white women were declared not disadvantaged enough. Then people of Indian and mixed race descent were not black enough. (You can argue the white women case – after all they benefited from apartheid too. That certainly can’t be said for the other two groups.)
|Patrica de Lille, Helen Zille, Lindiwe Mazibuko|
Even when someone is black in the black African sense, that may not be black enough. Allow me to introduce Lindiwe Mazibuko. This young lady is smart and talented and the parliamentary leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) – the official opposition, and only group able to make any real challenge to the ANC government. While the DA was the rump of historically white parties – albeit liberal – and appealed to that segment of the population, it was treated by the ANC government as a minor nuisance, unavoidable in the democratic scheme of things. When its white leadership accused government members or civil servants of corruption, this was dismissed as white racism. (No, I don’t see that connection either.)
Ms Mazibuko is an affirmative action appointment. She has risen rapidly, and is strongly supported by the party’s feisty leader - Helen Zille. She beat a more experienced white male for the parliamentary leader’s job. The party understands that it will never achieve a breakthrough with middle class – let alone average - black voters unless it transforms itself. Last week Ms Mazibuko made the New York Times. You can read the article about her here.
But the idea of the opposition reaching out to blacks is altogether not to the ANC government’s liking. So, then, is Ms Mazibuko black enough? She was born in Swaziland and came to South Africa as a child. So is her iZulu-speaking black enough? Then her ideas. She says she used to vote for the ANC when she was younger but feels they have failed the “born frees” - children born after the change of government - and she is disgusted by the corruption. This is not the language of true blacks (i.e. supporters of the ANC). So Lindiwe Mazibuko is dismissed as a ‘coconut’ – black outside but white inside. Definitely not black enough.
There is so much that’s good in South Africa and exceptional. But the ANC government is going to have to learn that – in the long run – they can’t rely on every black African’s support as a given. And they need to start addressing that with appropriate policies rather than with derogatory language.
Michael – Thursday.