Who’s the blackest minister of them all?

2014-06-06 10:00

The most depressing feature of the new South African Cabinet is not the increase in size or the controversy over who was appointed or left out; it was the animated but superficial media-driven debate about who is “black” and who is not.

The appointment of Nhlanhla Nene as the third minister of finance has opened up a crude discourse about race and the definition of “black” or “African” that reveals the sociopolitical failure to leave apartheid behind.

President Jacob Zuma’s redeployment of Pravin Gordhan and elevation of Nene has caused celebration in what could mistakenly be described as the indigenous section of the population known as African.

The rise of Nene has been greeted as a resounding victory by a large section of the indigenous people as marking the crowning of African talent to strategic leadership positions.

Some people had the nerve to accuse the ANC government of succumbing to market forces, international corporate and business partners and white racism by being overcautious in the appointment of an indigenous African as a finance minister.

The Treasury has, wrongly, been perceived as a no-go area for an African minister.

But this perception reduces Nene to a token and denies the fact that he is perhaps the most qualified to succeed Gordhan.

The very fact that some people could publicly say that no black person has been appointed as a finance minister insults the history, identity, self-definition and performance of Trevor Manuel and of Gordhan, and perpetuates apartheid division based on ethnicity.

After 20 years, people must begin to show signs they are ready to embrace each other as equal citizens who do not judge each other on race.

In fact, the development indicators to measure social cohesion indicate more than 50% of the population describes itself as South African and does not include race or tribe as a self-descriptor.

Of course, some will always agree that colour-blindness is a denial of racism, but we have to recognise merit and progress where it exists.

There should be no double standards in how we wish to define “blackness” as espoused by Steve Biko, or Africanness as postulated by Thabo Mbeki in his “I am an African” speech.

The whole brouhaha over who is black and who isn’t does not jive well with the principles and ideals of our Constitution.

How did we get in this bind?

Why do many people want to draw a distinction between Manuel, Gordhan and Nene?

First, we must admit there is still tension among the different ethnic groups. There is a widespread perception, especially in the indigenous African community, that coloured and Indian people still benefit more than Africans do in the new dispensation.

Not enough has been done to resolve this complex relationship.

Secondly, indigenous people want to see more Africans placed in leadership positions that will entrust them with responsibilities that bolster confidence and trust in African talent.

There are still many Africans, especially in the corporate world, who hold token positions and this generates and reveals deep-seated self-hatred among Africans.

Third, we need practical programmes that will promote social cohesion among the previously disadvantaged from all groups to help build trust and confidence among those who have been psychologically damaged by apartheid.

It would seem that after 20 years of freedom, there are far too many people who are still lost in the thicket of racial obsession.

» Memela is the chief director of social cohesion at the department of arts and culture

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