From cappuccino to café-au-lait

2011-05-21 12:03

I first visited South Africa in 1991, shortly after FW de Klerk announced the end of apartheid.

I can still recall the great sense of hope that was pulsating throughout the country at the time.

A dozen more visits and 20 years on, the country has unfortunately turned into what some locals call a “cappuccino society” – a mass of black at the bottom, a thin layer of white froth above it and a sprinkling of cocoa at the top.Little has changed in terms of social mobility, except for the addition of a few black faces at the top.

The conventional wisdom in South Africa and elsewhere defends this state of affairs on the basis that it is the equality of opportunity, not the equality of outcome, that we should pursue.

Defenders of this conventional wisdom agree that it was not only unjust but also inefficient for a black student under apartheid not to be able to go to better, “white”, universities – even if he was a better student.

However, as they would hasten to add, it is equally unjust and inefficient to introduce affirmative action and begin to admit students of lower quality simply because they are black.

In post-apartheid South Africa, the conventional wisdom asserts that those who do not rise up the social ladder have only themselves to blame.

But this argument misses the crucial point that, in order to benefit from the equal opportunities provided to them, people need to have the capabilities to make use of them.

It is no use that black South Africans now have the same opportunities as whites in getting high-paying jobs if they do not have the education to qualify for those jobs.

For most black kids in South Africa, the newly acquired equality of opportunity to enter good universities does not necessarily mean that they can go to such universities.

Their schools are still poor and poorly run.

It is not as if their under-qualified teachers have suddenly become smart with the end of apartheid.

Their parents are still under-educated and unemployed.

So these children still have to spend a lot of time working outside and inside their households while getting very little educational support from their parents – all great obstacles to their educational performances. For them, the right to enter better universities is pie in the sky.

A contest cannot be called fair on the grounds that everyone starts from the same starting line if some kids have only one leg and others have sandbags tied to their legs.

Of course we cannot, and should not, explain people’s performance only by the environment in which they have grown up. Individuals do have responsibilities for what they have made out of their lives.

However, it is equally unacceptable to believe that people can achieve anything if they only “believe in themselves” and try hard enough, as Hollywood movies love to tell us.

Equality of opportunity is meaningless for those who do not have the capabilities to take advantage of it.

It is absolutely true that excessive attempts to equalise outcomes – as in the case of the Maoist commune – will have an adverse effect on people’s work effort. But a certain degree of equalisation of outcomes is necessary if we are to build a genuinely fair society.

Two decades since the end of apartheid and 17 years after the election of the first non-racial government in its history, South Africa still remains a society fundamentally hobbled by the inability of the majority of its citizens to take advantage of the equality of opportunity that has been so hard won.

Not only should the investment in the education of under-privileged children – including better training and pay for their teachers – be dramatically increased, there should also be measures to guarantee some minimum parental incomes so that poor children are not crippled in their learning efforts by the burdens of work or total absence of parental support.

This will require a serious programme to reduce unemployment by creating new jobs as well as the strengthening of social-welfare programmes, including remedial and other adult-education schemes.

It is time that South Africa gets serious about turning itself from a cappuccino society into a café-au-lait society, where all white and black elements are mixed throughout the cup.

This to ensure that everyone is placed according to their genuine abilities, and not handicapped by chance variables like race and parental income.

» Chang teaches economics at the University of Cambridge.

This article is based on a chapter from his new book, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. He visited SA this week 

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