This is in part response to Ferial Haffajee’s story posted recently – “The Woolworths Boycott Brigade”.
While this topic has been discussed ad nauseum, and I’m sure there have been many replies to her (indeed, Mr. R3ndi3r had a good response with his “Dear Aunty Ferial” piece), there are, however, a few issues her article raised which I would like to address.
I must say, upon reading the story about Woolworths and their employment policies I came *THIS* close to throwing my ill-gotten white people toys right out of the proverbial cot (toys allegedly prized from the hands of poor, starving black orphan children some would have you believe ;).
So I was pretty peeved, and was properly keen on never shopping at Woolies ever again. That was until this morning when I went across the road and got a Woolies yogurt for breakfast.
Breakfast is important, and I am no hero.
My intention here is not to lambast Ms. Haffajee at all. I apologize if this seems like an attempt to ambush her with a second mover advantage. Her piece just reiterated a certain mentality which I would like to address. This also isn’t it intended to promote a boycott of Woolies either. Boycotting their Billionaire shortbread truffle thingies is against my constitution. Instead, I intend to point out the misconceptions people have of wide reaching general problems because they apply their own circumstance (often subject to misplaced interpretation and bias) in order to reach what they deem a reliable and generally acceptable conclusion. I call it ‘seeing the world through tinted lenses’. The tint of your lens depends on your personal experiences, and it can be quite difficult to avoid. In fact I would go as far as to say it’s damn near impossible to not let your experiences warp your view of the world to at least some degree. The problem is that experience is only useful if you interpret it correctly. Unfortunately, this can be hard to do.
Her entire piece can be summed up with the following points:
· Because of “employment equity” she got a job (to put it crudely).
· “Employment equity” lifted a generation out of a lower class.
· “Inter-generational privilege” is a result of corrupt and immoral Apartheid practices and unbalances the South African economic equation (this wasn’t expressly stated, but as far as I’m concerned it was strongly inferred in her writing enough for me to extrapolate this).
· The socio-economic environment and its participants can be represented in a racially dependent equation reliable enough to be actionable (again, not expressly stated, but this is a recurring theme which, in my interpretation, she seems to subscribe to whether she realizes it or not).
· Current affirmative action policies are a good way to right the wrongs, and indeed CAN right wrongs.
With these points in mind, let me show you the world through my lenses. I try to keep them as untainted as possible.
Ms. Haffajee is clearly an intelligent person to some degree, so I’m sure she’ll understand why I will mostly ignore the first point. I don’t believe she would consider this a main point in her argument for affirmative action (AA) as it is purely subjective and holds no logical substance in the debate. I included that point because a large part of her piece was dedicated to her own experience (fair enough, but it’s irrelevant in the grand scheme of the AA debate). This was the emotive part of the piece (intended or not) which is a device used to gain emotional leniency for the points that follow. The last person you want to use this device on is a commerce graduate ;) We are well versed in detached, soulless thinking. Just as scientists eat lightning and belch thunder, we eat emotion and belch profit!
But I digress…
The point still assumes that she would not have gotten a job if the current AA policies weren’t in place. This is an assumption, and not necessarily a very accurate one.
The second point deserves some more attention, as its claim would be a good affirmation of affirmative action. However, this point is simply not true. Firstly you cannot claim it lifted an entire generation out of the depths of economic woe. You would need hard facts to back this up, and I certainly didn’t see any. I also don’t think the stats would corroborate this at all.
Secondly, the assumption is also made that without the current form of AA, this apparently wholesale uprising of a generation would not have taken place (if it did in fact take place, as mentioned above). I beg to differ. I feel that this in fact could have been better achieved through a more appropriate use of policy and the effective use of economic resources.
Service delivery, anyone? I guess not…
The last few points and their accompanying ideas are the ones which really spank my goat. They are points not specific to Ms. Haffajee, but seemingly to a large portion of commenters. I actually thank Ms. Haffajee for the chance to address them. Each one of them deserves a paper on their own, but I will try make-do with as little space as possible here.
It seems that the idea of “inter-generational privilege” is a sticky subject. It’s not something people look upon fondly. The fact of the matter is that when we see successful people from a family or group more privileged than our own, we immediately look upon them unfavorably. This is a self-defense mechanism we employ to shut out our own inadequacies. I definitely don’t come from a privileged family myself, and I must confess, it took a long time to get out of the habit of scorning those who were given more than me, blacks and whites alike. But barring a few deserving exceptions, I no longer do. That shift in mentality has allowed me to concentrate on my own growth and ignore the excuses I was using which held me back, and according to me, justified my own position (or lack of). It worked.
I hate going into the “us” and “them” side of things, but I didn’t throw the first punch. So forgive me, but it’s at this point that I feel I need to point something out…
White people are constantly used as the national villain. Someone has to say it. Headlines and comments constantly point at white people’s comparable wealth, and “legacies of apartheid” are constantly used as an excuse for failure and incompetence.
In the wake of apartheid, the contributions of white people to South Africa are largely ignored and swept under the carpet. You will find that those contributions, including in the days of the colonial powers, are far more significant than people want to admit nowadays. Celebrating white culture these days seems almost taboo. The issue is that globalization in the form of colonization had a few philosophical hiccoughs, and needless to say, apartheid was a biggie.
The fact of the matter is that white people to a large degree understand how to create and perpetuate wealth. We understand that economic wealth isn’t a pie which we simply divide up and munch, lest someone else eats it first. Society needs to learn how to bake their own pie, otherwise the pies will stop coming. When this happens, we ALL go hungry. And yes, we get it from our parents, who got it from their parents etc… it is a culture that as white people (generalization cringe…) we created and developed under for literally hundreds if not thousands of years. We thrived as a result. It’s a subtle thing, a common culture, or a state of mind or being which most people probably can’t understand or articulate, but it’s there. This is of course a general statement, and this culture is by no means localized and only available to whites (that would be arrogant and simply incorrect), but if we are going to employ and support policies which use rank generalization across race, then why stop there? We don’t like double standards. I know how controversial this sounds, but please consider this point very carefully before judging with a purely knee-jerk reaction. Just because we don’t like what we hear it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Sometimes I wish people would stop and think about the issue of wealth distribution a little bit differently. Maybe the fact that whites hold a large percentage of the wealth is because of their ability to create it in the first place, and that they did so despite the fact that they are only a small percentage of the population. South Africa is allegedly the only place on earth where AA still has to support the vast majority.
The issue is now bringing others to the table.
Like I said, I don’t like the “you” and “us” mentality, but if you are going to think in those terms, then at least be objective and honest with yourself. Whether nor not you like the resultant conclusion is irrelevant. But still, this is narrow-minded thinking. We should be judged as individuals, not as groups which happen to have similar physical characteristics.
At this point some of you will be frothing at the mouth shouting about injustices of the past. And you would be right. There were indeed gross injustices, however we need to react to and deal with those injustices appropriately and objectively. White people for the most part are willing to be part of the solution, provided the solution is the correct one. We even give our hard earned cash to facilitate it (tax). This leads me nicely onto the last points which are closely related.
The South African Economic Equation.
Simply put, this solution is NOT the best one. Hence why we complain.
As I mentioned above, it seems that many people think that the socio-economic environment and its participants can be represented in a racially dependent equation reliable enough for us to base socio-economic growth models and the resultant policies on.
The goal of the equation seems to simply be the redistribution of wealth and opportunities across the racial divide. Sounds good doesn’t it? A nice demographic equation! And all we have to do is balance the numbers!
This is a very simplistic way of looking at a massively complex issue. It’s also a little childish. This is the equation that people use to justify racially driven policies to such an extent that racism takes on a different face. It’s a face you won’t recognize as long as it’s saying what you want to hear. As a no-good, white, colonialist pig, I have a problem with that, and if you disapproved of institutionalized racism during those apartheid days, then so should you.
White people having wealth and being able to perpetuate that wealth isn’t the problem; it is in fact a symptom of another problem, or you could say it puts that problem into stark perspective - the problem is the massive gap between the haves and the have-nots - regardless of race. This is the main gripe white people have, and it’s why policies like AA and the Woolies debacle irritate us (“us”… another generalization! I’m getting good at this…).
This is where AA or “employment equity” falls short. If indeed it is true that the Have-nots are mostly ‘not white’ as a result of apartheid (and I’m happy to accept that MOST of them aren’t, because it’s fact), then the need for a racial KPI actually flies merrily out the window! It can in turn be replaced by something else entirely, something that not only works, but doesn’t serve to merely paper over the cracks. Whites feel frustrated because the government choses to use the pigmentation of peoples skins to determine something which is totally unrelated to the color spectrum. If a lack of wealth or income is the problem, surely wealth or income level is the best indicator of who deserves an economic boost in whatever form?
Ms. Haffajee said that the current AA policies are part of the “long-game”. I disagree. I feel the long-game comprises of a functioning government which can direct resources from the Haves (yes, those cunning, dastardly white folk AND black elites), and effectively filter those resources which we willingly give (that’s why we have tax in the first place, not to buy Boeing’s or cities for J-to-the-Z), to those who don’t in the form of service delivery.
Service delivery serves to give people the opportunities they need to excel, instead of giving the black elite a further leg up. Sure, you will get people like Ms. Haffajee who will benefit, but she could still go to university and so had the tools to compete on a level with everyone else (I don’t presume to know under what circumstances she went to university, but she clearly still had opportunities and skills). The problem is the bottom line. Those people who CAN’T apply for those top BEE or AA or even skilled entry level jobs because they never had the opportunity to complete with the black or white elite. Most of them can’t even get basic health care or running water.
THIS is the long-game as I understand it, slowing but surely giving the currently and previously disadvantaged (the Have-nots) the means to create and earn their own wealth so that they can compete on even footing with the current middle and upper class (of all races). All this while being an effective cog in society and adding value to the economy so we can perpetuate the cycle of service delivery.
People are complaining because despite the odd cases of apparent success, AA seems to be taking a wrong turn, as highlighted by the Woolies and SAA instances. I happen to know that they are simply the tip of a very ugly iceberg.
Understanding this, there would still be some initial ‘stickiness’ from ‘the old guard’ who haven’t quite cottoned on to the idea of an inclusive society, but the reality is that those people are dwindling. Perhaps this is an argument for an initial phase of AA, as was used in Botswana. They, however, understood that AA could not become permanent policy and so gave it a timeframe.
People of my generation who are now becoming captains of industry grew up without the anger and taint of that period, and as a result we aren’t as inclined to accept the excuses offered to us by government. Likewise, we simply don’t feel guilty for something we were never apart of. We don’t care as much for sob stories about what happened in the past, and which are now used as justification for over-the-top ‘corrective’ policies. We simply don’t feel guilt, and we're losing patience.
Also, black people shouldn’t rely on white business and wealth exclusively. If government took service delivery seriously enough to actually do it properly then the situation would sort itself out as it should do over time. Whites only count for 10% of the population. People should be able to make their own way by now with almost 20 years of AA, instead of crying out for a free piece of the pie. Unfortunately we don’t have a government capable of giving them the tools they need in order to do so, nor do they seem capable of changing the socio-economic mindset from ‘want’ to ‘earn’ or 'create'. It seems they're too busy rewarding themselves for being self-proclaimed struggle heroes.
If government thinks that AA isn’t meeting their goals, then maybe it’s AA itself, and their lack of ability (or will) that is the problem.
But blaming seems easier than doing these days. Especially when we can use it as an excuse to grab free pie.
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