What’s race got to do with water?: Frans Cronje

2014-06-15 15:01

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Pushing unqualified people into powerful positions can have dire consequences, writes Frans Cronje

In 1973, under direct SA Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) influence, the Financial Mail published a powerful front page headline on the brutality of apartheid policy in the form of a shocking photograph of a dying black baby.

The prime minister, John Vorster, demanded to know what evidence there was of a connection between apartheid policy and the dying child.

Last week, the institute again pointed to a connection between policies and dying children – that between race-based affirmative action and government incompetence. Again, demands were made for “evidence”.

Some of the most compelling evidence comes from government and the ANC. In 2009, the then ANC treasurer-general, Mathews Phosa, lamented that local government was “now in ICU” because of the mistakes government had made on affirmative action.

In 2011, then minister of cooperative governance Sicelo Shiceka said local authorities were widely seen as “incompetent, disorganised, uninterested”. President Jacob Zuma has described the public service as “lazy and incompetent”.

But to say the Bloemhof babies died because of “incompetence” is not enough. There is no dispute the racist policies of apartheid require redress. Nor is there any dispute black people suffered material disadvantage because of their race.

But race is a double-edged sword. The powerful emotions conjured up around race make it the perfect cover behind which to hide malfeasance.

Hence, politicians abuse affirmative action policy to justify totally inappropriate appointments in the name of “racial transformation”.

Our critics counter that the policy must simply be implemented properly. This is naive. We have a very corrupt government – and if you give it the power to hide its malfeasance and damaging ideology behind “racial transformation”, it will do so.

You cannot divorce the policy from its consequences, even where these are unintentional or arise from abuse.

None of this has anything to do with “the whites”. For the most part, white South Africans are fine. Ironically, the current model of affirmative action has proved particularly effective at empowering them via entrepreneurship.

Our critique of South Africa’s affirmative action policy is built on examples where the victims are black. Accusations that the critique is racist ignore this.

Just as erroneous is the idea that we are trying to stop black advancement – if nothing else, this would entirely undermine the model of a growth-led market economy the SAIRR has been advocating for decades.

Also absurd is the disingenuous suggestion that our critique of affirmative action is an attack on the competence of black people. There is nothing inherent in people’s race that determines ability.

Nor is our critique denying the socioeconomic progress made since 1994. Rather, too many people remain victims of a cruel and uncaring system and far more could have been achieved.

That the accusation of racism has been thrown about so freely merely confirms our thesis that the racial basis of the policy is exploited to cover up its abuse.

The focus should rather be on some of our critics’ own commitment to “social justice” when they vilify any alternatives to the status quo. The extent of their vilification probably reveals they know we are right but can’t accept it. Too often, these critics are people whose own children would never be exposed to toxic water.

There are many instances where affirmative action worked well. But even those who have benefited from the policy must weigh their personal interest against the great price the majority of poor people pay at the hands of an increasingly inept civil service. That price lies not just in the deaths of babies.

It is evident also in our pathetic economic growth rate, our abysmal education system and our unemployment crisis.

So we disagree that the policy can be fixed. Instead, we urge all South Africans to consider our alternative – economic empowerment for the disadvantaged (EED) – a new policy being developed within the SAIRR.

EED differs from affirmative action in two key respects. The first is that it is not race based. Rather, it uses socioeconomic circumstances to identify beneficiaries.

Secondly, it focuses not on auditing the outcomes of transformation policy but rather on providing the inputs necessary to empower poor people, such as decent schooling, tertiary training opportunities and entrepreneurial incubation. On these building blocks, and against a background of rapid economic growth, millions will be liberated from poverty.

Whether race should remain the foundation for affirmative action is a question of profound importance and will determine the success of future policy.

Our aim has been to draw attention to the impact of current policy on poor and vulnerable communities. Without real change, growth, investment and employment levels are unlikely to improve.

Examples such as Bloemhof will multiply. Corruption and maladministration will persist, if not increase. On this terrible prognosis the evidence will, regrettably, be utterly in our favour.

Cronje is the chief executive of the SAIRR

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