I am not racist but……
I listen to Talk Radio 702 most evenings. The discussion subjects are both specific and varied in nature but generally they end up on politics and in particular, Apartheid. On a particular evening, Aubrey Masango hosted the Talk at Nine Show and the discussion revolved around the fact that four newly-born babies died at a state hospital in the Polokwane Province on a day where no doctors were on duty.
Aubrey invited the National Health Department’s Director General to explain the situation and to answer listeners’ questions. Her answers and comments provoked a vigorous discussion on her competency and the competency of management in general deployed within all levels of government departments and inevitably the race card was dealt. The assertion; Black is incompetent and White is competent.
Aubrey did his very best to facilitate the rational and irrational comments of both sides – Black and White. He vented his frustration by asking a simple question: Were White people not aware of what really happened during those dreadful Apartheid years?
Aubrey Masango is, in my opinion, the most empathic presenter on the Talk Radio 702 lineup. His question prompted me to write this piece and I write it in his honour and hopefully he will accept my personal explanation as an answer to his very insightful question.
I was born to be a racist with prejudices
I ‘affectionately’ refer to my late farther as the late Eugene Terre ’Blanche’s tutor. At our 40th school re-union, CBC Boksburg Class of ’67, I asked Brian Currin, a prominent Human Rights Lawyer and a class-mate, how we ‘missed’ the world of Apartheid during our school years. His answer was simple and quick. He blamed our parents. He was right.
I was raised in a modest Roman Catholic household. I went to a private Catholic school. I was a diligent scholar and I participated in as many school activities as possible. I caught a bus and train to school and I was able to do that safely even if I returned home from a school sports event in an early evening.
I played with my friends in the street and at a local park. We all knew when it was ‘home time’ and as a matter of interest vehicle drivers slowed up when they approached children playing in the street. My parents took me to Church on Sundays and on special occasions I went shopping with them to buy provisions and clothes. In those days we shopped at the OK Bazaars.
Our evening and weekend entertainment consisted of listening to Springbok Radio unless my father controlled the dial and insisted that we listened to the ‘A’ program – the English News and Music channel. Unless we had an ‘advanced’ radio to listen to the BBC or the Voice of America, the SABC was the only provider of news and information we could ‘rely’ upon and these were the guys that banned Beatles music from their playlist. I hated them for that.
So, what’s my point? Well apart from our domestic ‘servant’ I rarely saw a Native – the terminology of the day. I knew they existed because they travelled in the last two coaches of the train I took to school. I saw Natives when I went on the occasional photographic outing with my father and his camera club colleagues.
We would take photographs of these colourfully dressed Natives and if they were paid a modest fee they would entertain us with some exciting rhythmic dance routines. Oh, by the way, if we were lucky we may have got to see the naked breasts of these Native Maidens.
These Natives didn’t serve us at the OK Bazaars and the Banks and we certainly didn’t see them when we went to the local Cinema. At school, in our history lessons, we were taught that these Natives had the audacity to challenge the Boers who trekked into their territories with the intention of setting up permanent settlements on their ancestral land.
In reality I was under the impressions that the issues between the Europeans and the Natives had long been sorted and the Europeans had won. In fact in those days I believed that my father’s real anger was directed at the Afrikaner. It was the Afrikaner who got the jobs. It was the Afrikaner who won the Government tenders.
The English speaking European people were side-lined. As kids we encouraged to tear down election posters of the late Doctor Piet Koornhof, who was our constituent’s Member of Parliament. A Rugby match between an English and Afrikaans school became the venue for an opportunity for parents of each team to throw insults at each other – the Boer War continued…..
I encounter reality
After finishing school and a short stint in the Army (I was assigned to do service in a Commando Unit) I had no problem getting a job as an Articled Clerk in a firm of Chartered Accountants. In those days, as an Articled Clerk, we had to work during the day and do our University studies part-time. So going to work for me was my first big step into the real world. I got to interact with many business people as well as fellow students. It was so exciting!
One of my very first assignments was to assist on an audit at a bank. My task was to do a ‘debtors circularisation’ and I had to liaise with one Thomas who controlled the internal post within the bank. Thomas was a big Native man who operated in the basement offices of the bank.
He was an absolute gentleman and he guided me through the banks postal processes. I remember the interaction so well. I was so scared of this guy. He was big and he knew his job and all the Natives who worked for him dare not challenge his orders. So my job became easy – Thomas made it happen.
I was overwhelmed by his power but more so by his humility and his desire to help this very scared young European boy. I remember very clearly how I innocently sat down at his desk to discuss my project. He and all his people seemed to feel uncomfortable – I had no idea why at the time. But, I was in awe of Thomas.
After a day or so at the bank, I made an amazing observation: The European people sat upstairs in neatly organised offices, a few ‘Coloured’ people sat on the same floor as the Europeans but they were screened off so no European would see them and then the Natives were located in the basement. What was this all about?
It worried me and at the tender age of eighteen I began to wonder some more. I remember talking to Thomas about my observation. He was uncomfortable talking to me about the situation and I sensed that he was in disbelief at the naivety of this young European boy. I could not believe that a man with Thomas’s ability was only assigned to the menial task of supervising the mail room.
What a waste of an economic resource I thought. The man’s ability was wasted. He had so much knowledge of the bank, its systems, its customers and its management and staff – and he was teaching me!
Over the next few weeks I spotted a similar trend at other clients. Then one day I discussed my observations and my theory about how I thought the country’s economy was being compromised by this stupid racial policy with my father – by this stage I had acquired a little wisdom. What I didn’t expect was his reaction. ‘The way it is, is the way it should be and it the way it will be’ was his stern comment - end of discussion. Wow!
I was still very dependent on my parents so it was best not push this button again, I thought. I learned to keep my feelings to myself just in case I may offend anybody else and especially our audit clients. I became aware that it was subversive to talk of these things so it was best to just shut up.
But, I learned a lot during this time. I learned about the concept of institutionalised racism. I began to realise how unfair it was to discriminate against people with a different colour skin.
I ashamedly admit I did very little to challenge this evil system except to ‘think about how wrong it was’.
I do what I can
I completed my articles and my studies and decided to expand my career in the real world of commerce and make some money and in the process try and ‘right the wrongs’ of Apartheid. I guess I could write a book on my experiences in challenging racism in the workplace. I’m not going to do that because I think it is probably so well documented anyway. However, I would like to highlight a few challenges I faced in my business career, so here goes:
I became a partner in a small manufacturing business. My growth strategy required that I hired machine operators, which I did. I started a process of training some of my Black workers (I ceased to use the term Native by this time) to do some of the machine work.
Then one day my factory was raided by the ‘Black Jacks’ and all my Black machine operators were arrested and jailed. The ‘Black Jacks’ were the Governments’ labour law enforcers. I was devastated because it was my fault. I contravened some law which required that I employ a workforce to comply with a specific ratio of Whites to Coloureds to Blacks.
I can’t remember the exact sequence of events but I know I went to court to defend the ‘rights’ of my people. I remember the Magistrate getting so cross with me that he threatened to jail me for contempt. My partner stepped in and persuaded me to pay the fine to get my people released.
At the factory, we made a few structural changes, bought some beds and we provided sleeping place for our people. We broke the law again. We continued to employ our people but we did it under the cover of darkness. It was a terrible situation but I thought it was a ‘win-win’ situation. We got our production and our employees got to earn some money.
As years went by and my career developed I discovered a new challenge. Laws governing racial quotas were being relaxed but the practice remained. In fact it was entrenched. I had to persuade my subordinates to do the right thing. I became more involved in employment policies in which I tried to encourage the employment of Black people to supervisory, management and front-line positions. I could write another book on excuses.
For example, the accent of a Black lady would harm the company’s image and yet the inaudible accent of a White Scottish lady could be tolerated. ‘These people do not have the necessary skills’ was another excuse. So I encouraged my managers to look for talent and train people. ‘Boss that would take too long and it would be too expensive’ was the stock answer, but ‘I know someone’ - a friend of course!
One day I noticed that we had been assigned a new guard to manage the reception of my Internet business. He checked my bag in terms of a set procedure and he did it politely and with a smile. His face said ‘I love my job’. I watched him for a week or so and my curiosity got the better of me. I called Alpheus Ratopola into my office and asked him to talk to me about his dreams.
He had no ideas what he wanted to do but he wanted to go places. I phoned his employer and informed him that I was about to offer Alpheus a job. I didn’t have a job for Alpheus but I knew I had a potential star. I took him through to the network department and I instructed the manager to put him through some form of induction program, make him useful and teach him things.
I skipped all my employment policy rules. To this day I still don’t know if Alpheus has a Standard 5 or a Matric. I do know that today he is a very well respected network engineer. He has been trained but more importantly he grabbed an opportunity and made great use it. If I had not spotted that attitude in that security guard that day, someone else would have and it would have been my company’s loss.
In 1988 I used to run a components manufacturing company. I had read a book by Albert Koopman on participation management and I attempted to implement some of his principles in my business. In an informal ‘participation’ meeting one of the operators made a comment which jolted me. He said that our company had three levels of management each with a different political agenda.
Management was PFP, supervisors were AWB and the workers were ANC. Remember, the ANC was still a banned organisation at this stage. I could see that the ‘winds of change’ had truly hit South Africa and I knew I had to prepare my company to face this challenge.
I closed the factory for two days, I hired a professional facilitator and at an upmarket conference venue we proceeded to get to know more about each other. The facilitator split us into two groups – Blacks and Whites. We, each group, faced each other and we were told to tell each other what we liked and disliked about each other. Wow! Words such as steal, stink, arrogant and many more surfaced.
It was really tough. Of course Apartheid had to be justified and I can remember a White supervisor bringing out a Bible in support of his belief. The facilitator told us a story about a day in the life of Thabo and Brian – Brian could have been Quentin. I don’t think there was a dry eye in in that conference room after that. The penny dropped for many of us!
Our supervisors suddenly realised why their machine operators were sometimes a little late for work and they needed that cup of coffee before they started work – after all they had already been up and about for about three hours. I took a gamble and it paid off – in the main. We all realised that some people just could not accept evil.
We learned many lessons that day but I realised this: As a little White boy, my parents shielded me from the evils of Apartheid. The Government of the day shielded me from the evils of Apartheid. I came home at night and at our comfortable the dinner table we talked about the try I scored that day. Thabo, on the other hand, in an unfurnished little room shared ‘pap’ with his parents and extended family and had to listen to how his mother and father were humiliated by a White person that day – that person could have been one of my parents.
The roles are reversed
My fortunes have changed in recent years and I find myself in a similar situation as so many Black people do now and certainly during the Apartheid years. I am unable to find employment because I am a 63 year old White male, in spite of my qualifications and vast business experience. In fact businesses get incentivised not to employ people like me.
I have been mugged, shot and burgled and unfortunately in each case by a Black man. So now I experience first-hand exactly the intention of ‘job reservation’ – only in reverse.
I am angry
Right now I am angry. I voted for the ANC Government in 1994 and 1999. In 2004 I switched sides and in 2009 I switched sides again voted for COPE - that was a wasted vote. But, my next vote will definitely not go to the ANC.
Aubrey Masango is right. Being Black does not mean incompetence and being White does not mean competence. But I think ANC means incompetence! Let’s just list a few reasons to justify my comment:
· Who would waste a great deal of money on a corrupt arms deal?
· Who would allow its leader to deny the existence of the Aids virus?
· Who would allow the legislature to be compromised by re-sending crooks back to parliament? I refer to the ‘Travelgate’ scandal.
· Who would allow its leader to avoid his day in court so he can defend the corruption charges leveled against him?
· Who would allow thousands of school children to be deprived of learning material for the best part of a school year?
· Who would allow children to go to school where there are not toilets?
The answer: Only the ANC.
· they allow its leader to spend R240m of state money on his private home
· they deploy incompetent cadres to manage a state hospital and allow four innocent newly-born babies to die
The problem is: cadre deployment means that Black people are being deployed to specific jobs, even if they are not qualified to do so. So I can understand why so many White people may mistakenly identify Black as incompetent and this could be construed as Racist. Alpheus Ratopola is Black and he is certainly not incompetent.
Aubrey Masango is Black and although I have not met him in person, I know he is not incompetent. If he were, I certainly would not spend hours listening to his show. There are millions of people like Alpheus and Aubrey in South Africa. I want all of them to succeed and add value to my Beloved Country. I would also really like to help!
I cannot apologise for Apartheid. I did not cause it. I cannot apologise for my parents’ behavior. All I can do is to hang my head in shame at the injustices that the White people caused to the dignity of the Black people in South Africa, many of whom I call my friends.
I beg my White brethren to sit back, as I have done, and do some sole searching. Just think what life may be like if the Black people who now control our country do to us as we did to them?
At the same time I beg my Black brethren to accept that there are so many of us White people who are deeply ashamed of our past behavior. Please urge our leadership, our Black leadership, to take their role seriously.
Please do not allow them to give some White people an excuse to confuse Black with incompetence. Please do not allow them to hide their secrets from us. Just look at how my generation was fooled into believing that everything was good.
Finally, please tell them to stop killing people, especially newly-born babies.
Quentin G McCullough
13th January 2013