Census results are out. They suggest that life has improved for many South Africans, which is good news. But we should be careful about how we interpret the results. Firstly, that things have improved does not mean that they have improved enough. Moving in the right direction is not the only measure of success, we need to ask if we have done as well as we could. I am not convinced that we have. Corruption and ineptitude come at a cost. They are not just annoying, but they slow progress. I do not want to be one of those negative people who always want to shoot down good news, but I do want to be one of those people who always think we can do better.
The second caution is the tendency for Statistics South Africa to focus so much attention on race. Race is still very important in South Africa. You do not overcome hundreds of years of systematic oppression quickly. Those people who think that after 18 years we should now forget the 300 preceding years need to reflect on how oppression works. You cannot take away land, employment opportunities and basic human rights, and then deny access to quality healthcare and education and think that the damage will be short lived. It will take generations to fully right the wrongs of the past. But it is not all about race.
On average white people in South Africa are much richer than black people – earning on average 6 times more according to the census. If we focus on how poor black people are we will come up with policies which aim to increase black people’s income. But this is a mistake. We all know that there is now a wealthy black elite. They do not need help. Policies should support poor people to increase their income – black or white. Given our country’s history, policies directed towards poverty reduction will benefit mainly black people, while policies directed to black people will help rich and poor. If we are serious about poverty reduction we should target those with low income, not those who are part of an ethnic group which is, on average, poorer than other ethnic groups.
Make no mistake that there are powerful interests keeping the focus on race. Those among the black elite who gain their wealth through preferential policies, such as BEE, or who make super profits from corrupt tender processes, do not want people asking too many questions. If they can continue to cast wealthy whites as the enemy, they can continue to loot the state in the name of racial justice – effectively stealing from the poor. The wealthiest whites are also happy for the focus to remain on race. Not all whites are supper rich, and those that are like being part of a bigger group, i.e. all whites. If we focused on the elite we would soon realize that there are a very small percentage of people in our country, black and white, who are having a great time at the expense of the rest of us. So unless you are part of the top 2%, best you get over seeing things in racial terms, or you will miss that the super-rich are robbing us all.