What’s race got to do with water?: Ferial Haffajee

2014-06-15 15:01

Blaming the water problem on affirmative action implies blacks are institutionally inferior, writes Ferial Haffajee

Funny that. I’ve been reading reports from the SA Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) since forever. I don’t remember one from the institute during the apartheid era that stated “affirmative action is killing babies”.

And let’s face it, what was apartheid if not a long, structured and cruel affirmative action programme under a different name – “job reservation”?

There can be little doubt apartheid and its affirmative action appointees killed babies, but I feel that line is cheap and lacks intellectual substance.

A bit like writing a piece headlined “Out-of-touch white CEOs responsible for crippling platinum strike” – sexy and sure to get a read or at least a click, but cheap and destructive.

To bolster the argument that “apartheid affirmative action killed babies”, you would have to argue that the bureaucrats who devised and oversaw racial budgets for health in effect killed babies because malnutrition was much higher for black babies than others.

You’d have to show disease patterns and burdens, as well as the intergenerational outcomes of Bantu education – again tracing them to their affirmative action appointees, all of whom were white and male, or their homeland proxies.

The requirements of complexity and rigour probably explain why the anti-apartheid turned anti-affirmative action think-tank, the SAIRR, never once released a statement that went “affirmative action killed babies” throughout its illustrious history of fighting apartheid.

Why, then, did it put out a statement saying that last week? Why did it do so without mentioning the babies who died: Lehlogonolo (the nine-month-old son of Kehapilwe Sehau), Onalenna (the one-year-old son of Maserame Mogorogi) and Kabo (the five-month-old daughter of Keabetswe Wageng)? Why did it not send a research team to Bloemhof, the municipality in North West where the three little ones died after drinking water infected with E. coli?

The unusual absence of rigorous research didn’t matter. The headline went viral, resonating with a powerful strand in society that is against affirmative action now, but was pretty acquiescent with it before.

The preventable deaths of babies should outrage us. But to turn their deaths into political fodder for an emotive campaign against affirmative action is to spit on their graves. I checked with the institute last week – they had not sent a team out to the municipality to test their thesis, neither had they been in touch with the families of the babies who were killed.

Neither, as far as I can see, did their statement include a study of whether white, skilled applicants had been refused posts in favour of black, unskilled applicants at the municipality. In other words, it was a neoconservative thumb suck.

At City Press, we like to stay on top of coverage of local government because it is at the coalface of society. In doing so, we’ve developed a pretty good understanding of what happens to water.

As the ANC found out on the election campaign trail, water is at the forefront of poor communities’ travails. In fact, Bloemhof was in violent protest about water before the election.

If you trace the story’s narrative, you’ll find there is a deadly cocktail being served. Its ingredients include cadre deployment (where politicians who do not make it on to party lists become municipal managers and officials), and neglect and corruption (there are numerous municipalities where water tanker owners work in cahoots with municipal officials to prevent the laying of drinking water and sewage pipes).

If you ask the babies’ mums, they lay blame on the municipality and hospitals where long queues kept the ill from being treated.

There is no link, except an ideological one and a possibly racist one, between the babies who died and affirmative action.

Ideologically, the SAIRR has always been part of the army mustered against the successful implementation of employment equity. And racially? Basically, the institute is saying black incumbents are institutionally and indelibly inferior.

Some of my best friends (and I) are affirmative action appointees. We also happen to be walking examples, among hundreds of thousands of us, of why such an ideological and racial position is untrue and unwise.

It is from the institute’s vast trove of research, and specifically from its dynamic young CEO Frans Cronje, that I have learnt about the impact of a growing black middle class on South Africa; about how black people presented with opportunities have taken them. We, the children of freedom, have kept a recession from the door with voracious appetites for property, pension funds, cars, household goods – you name it.

So, what happened? I think Cronje is being pulled back to the right from the progressive placing he had sought for his institute, which is a great pity. Progressive liberalism can sit quite comfortably with policies geared towards enhancing black empowerment.

What is more deeply worrying is how viral that awful headline went. Not for the first time do retrogressive debates like this one call upon those of us who benefited from affirmative action to speak up for it. And to speak up for babies who die unnecessarily.

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