Let’s talk about race

2011-03-07 00:00

RACE has always defined who and what we are in this corner of the Earth, from who were the masters and slaves in colonial times to apartheid’s grand social construct based on race. It defined where we lived, what jobs we could get, which public benches we sat on and the type of education we received — the list goes on. No wonder South Africa’s largest liberation movement, the ANC, made non-racialism a central tenet of its struggle for liberation.

However, when freedom came, so caught up were we in the euphoria of the moment that we chose to ignore how deeply divided we were and just how imprisoned we remain in our race-based ghettos. A rainbow-coloured elastoplast was neatly placed over this suppurating wound. As expected, the pus oozes to the surface from time to time, as has happened in the past week. In looking at this latest eruption, the question has to be asked, why now? Will this latest outburst be handled in a limp-wristed manner, leaving the wound to continue festering under the surface?

A couple of scenarios dominate South African politics at present. The main issue, as former Cosatu boss Jay Naidoo describes it in the Sunday Times, is the vast army of jobless, disenchanted youth. Naidoo points out that 52% of the South African population is under the age of 25 and conservative estimates point out that half are unemployed. Against this background the ruling party has launched an ambitious job-creation drive. At the same time there is the ongoing debate of a predatory and well-connected political elite who are continuing to accrue vast wealth through preferential access to tenders and black economic empowerment deals. There is also the furore around the Gupta empire and the benefits that have accrued to President Jacob Zuma’s family. Perhaps the focus on how Indians and coloureds are benefitting economically could be red herrings to distract us from the benefits being accrued by this elite, who are showing little sign of wanting to share them.

Throw into this mix — as ANC intellectual Pallo Jordan noted in the Sunday Tribune — the timing of Afriforum and the Democratic Alliance drawing attention to utterances about coloureds and Indians made by government spin doctor Jimmy Manyi a year ago, and you have a cauldron of bubbling tensions.

We were all caught napping by not paying attention to planned amendments to labour legislation made more than a year ago, which proposed that jobs in provinces reflect national demographics. This is the debate we should be having: whether the kind of social engineering used by the apartheid government has any place in a democratic South Africa.

The easy solution being presented is that the government should fire Manyi. This won’t solve the problem. He will just become a convenient scapegoat.

This furore has highlighted the view that coloureds and Indians are getting jobs at the expense of Africans. It’s a reminder of the xenophobic attacks that surface from time to time based on fears that foreigners are taking jobs and business away from poor communities. These are the kind of issues that need be tackled head-on in open debate. Nobody should be fearful of stating their views. Perhaps it is time we began clearing the air in dealing with ongoing prejudices and stereotypes.

While we’re at it, we need to remember that there are no saints or sinners. Yes, the ANC needs to sort out issues of corruption and a predatory elite who pull out the race card whenever it suits them. But opposition parties like the DA, which are chortling from the sidelines, need to carry out their own introspection on issues of race relations.

So, too, does business, which is required to participate in the employment equity exercise, but at times gives the impression of being a reluctant partner in a process that initially had some validity in trying to redress past imbalances in the workplace. Perhaps if the employment equity process had been carried out with greater enthusiasm we wouldn’t have the proposed amendments.

And come to think about it, shouldn’t an organisation like AfriForum remove the plank from its eye before pointing to the splinter in a brother’s eye.

What of the South African Institute of Race Relations, which did a good job in calculating the effects of the proposed equity amendments? It may well be time to resuscitate the role it played so well and against all odds during the apartheid era – that of building better race relations.

Let’s use the current national conversation on race to attend to the wound festering under the surface — not in a superficial way, but to dig deep and try to cauterise this suppurating sore. Drastic surgery is required and while we’re at it, expect things to get a lot worse before they get better.

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