Middle finger

2014-06-22 15:00

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Our real ticking time bomb may be not poverty, but what it always has been – race. Our angriest people may not be those forced to survive on much less than they need, but the black middle class.

Poverty is our biggest problem. It affects most people and imposes huge economic and social costs. But the frequently heard claim that poor people are about to rise up and destroy the economy ignores the reality that poverty usually forces people to be more pragmatic because more is at stake. The poor are not yet organised enough and are still too isolated from economic power to change society.

Middle class people, by contrast, can organise and make themselves heard. And if middle class people are black, they may be very angry.

This point was illustrated during a recent radio debate whose audience was overwhelmingly black and middle class.

Callers angrily insisted they were considering voting for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in Gauteng because the ANC was reportedly considering appointing a white person as the province’s premier. Why was that a problem? The callers were lawyers, managers or businesspeople.

All complained of workplace experiences with whites who, in their view, failed to take them seriously or recognise their dignity.

One radio discussion does not make a trend. But the fact that 400?000 voters did choose the EFF in Gauteng suggests there were many more angry black professionals in the province than those who called into the radio station.

What evidence we have suggests the ANC lost ground in Gauteng primarily because the black middle class deserted it.

An important reason for the shift was a sense that even though, two decades into democracy, black professionals and businesspeople may live vastly better than previous generations, they face the same racial attitudes and sense of exclusion, even if the process is now subtler.

This anger upsets two common beliefs. First, that entry into the middle class is likely to make black people happier with the market economy, and that racial contact in the workplace is sure to make people get on better with each other.

This ignores two realities. One is that race still matters here, and that it matters most to black people in business and the professions because it is they who are at the sharp end of the racial interface.

Some unemployed black people don’t have any contact with whites at all. A study in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, found that up to a third of residents spoke no English or Afrikaans, which surely means they have little or no contact with whites. For them, white attitudes are an abstract problem.

Black blue-collar workers may experience workplace racism but the effects are reduced by a tendency among many large companies to hire black managers who deal with black workers. Professionals, on the other hand, spend most of their time in direct contact with white people.

The other reality is that many black professionals experience racial mixing as a process not of affirmation but of constant belittling. And so the result is not more tolerance and the happy racial mixing featured in beer ads, but anger at what is seen as the persistence of the white attitudes that underpinned apartheid.

Racial pecking orders in business and the professions have not died – that much is obvious to anyone who spends time engaging with businesses. Not only are the upper echelons of companies still mainly white, but the way people engage with each other has hardly shifted.

There are obvious exceptions, but at many engagements with companies, it is the white people who speak during the formal sessions and the black people who wait until the meeting is over to approach an invited speaker – not only to ask questions but at times to point out that the attitudes black managers express to their white colleagues are not necessarily those they really hold.

None of this should be all that surprising. Apartheid was underpinned by attitudes far too deeply held to disappear in two decades – the assumption that only whites are competent to perform complicated tasks dies hard.

This affects our national debate: much of the stress on “leaving the markets alone” is code for freeing the white people who run the private economy from the control of black people who run the government. Inevitably, it affects attitudes in the workplace too.

This past may also have ensured that black people enter the middle class with little confidence and little trust. And so it would be naive to expect local beer ads to describe the real world.

The myth of unity perpetuated by alcohol adverts such as these couldn’t be further from the truth

It is unclear how much of this is white bigotry and how much is black people’s sense that they have been thrust into a world shaped by others where they are given little help to enable them to feel at home. But it is surely both.

What is clear is that the cutting edge of racial mistrust is not the streets of townships or shack settlements but the air-conditioned offices of our major cities.

The angry black middle class will have limited influence on future elections – even if they all desert the ANC, their numbers are likely to remain too small for too long to make them a major power at the voting booths.

But the way race plays out in business and the professions is a huge problem for society.

It places a permanent limit on developing talent, makes open conversation about our economic and political priorities far more difficult and distorts our debate because racial anger in the middle class is often confused with rebellion by workers and the poor. And it remains a potential threat to democracy because it makes tolerance and mutual respect more difficult.

In the early 1990s, racial attitudes in the middle class were a major issue for a society negotiating a new political order.

When democracy was achieved, the social power holders – business, the professions, academics, the media – seemed to decide that race was a problem no longer because everyone had the vote and formal rights. And so racial tensions that should have been addressed over the past two decades were ignored.

The anger confirms that this was a mistake. The problem has not disappeared and, if it is not addressed now, we may pay a rising price for ignoring our deepest divide.

Friedman is the director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a joint initiative of Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg. This piece first appeared on the SA Civil Society Information Service website (sacsis.org.za)

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