Max du Preez

Transformation the right way

2008-04-02 08:22

Max du Preez

What does transformation, that word that dominates virtually everything in our public life, really mean?

My MS Word spellchecker says it means "complete change, usually into something with an improved appearance or usefulness."

Now I understand why the concept has been so abused. Too many people, including our ruling party's leadership, believe the first part of the definition is the correct one - the one that says transformation is complete change "into something with an approved appearance".

That's why our rulers and their spin doctors believe that we have seen real transformation in the civil service and parastatals.

Since 1994, large numbers of experienced white teachers were encouraged to leave the profession or retire early. Thus the education system was "transformed", because there were now more black than white faces, which is an "improvement in appearance".

The same happened in institutions such as Eskom and the Land Bank. White employees were pressured to go, even those with rare skills. It was "good transformation"; it improved appearances.

I personally believe we should concentrate less on appearance and go for the second part of the definition, the "usefulness" part. I believe in substance rather than window dressing.

Look to the past

We are transforming because of our evil past. White people like me received the best education and the best jobs. Black people were forced into tribal homelands, townships and squatter camps. Their education was inferior and they were barred from most good jobs. Black South Africans were largely excluded from the economy.

This was our challenge after our liberation from apartheid oppression in 1994: to undo the past as soon as was feasible; to undo the damage apartheid had done to the majority of our citizens. In short, to change our systems, institutions and policies so we could eventually become a "normal" society.

I feel confident that few people will disagree with me when I say transformation wasn't supposed to only benefit a few. The promise our liberation movement made wasn't that they would liberate a small elite. They said they cared about the poor, the unemployed, the working classes.

The education departments, the Eskoms and Land Banks were only "transformed" to benefit a few. It was window dressing, not real change. The poor, the downtrodden, the young are again sucking on the hind teat.

In large part because of the obsession with showcasing black faces, our education system, our department of home affairs, Eskom, Land Bank and other institutions have failed and are now delivering less of a service to the ordinary citizen, also the ordinary black citizen, than during apartheid years.

Instead of allowing white employees to properly transfer their skills and mentor black colleagues who were to take their positions, there was an undue haste to effect a white exodus.


The failure of the Land Bank, for instance, is one of the factors why we have failed so many emerging and aspirant black farmers. Eskom is now re-employing some white experts, but the damage has been done.

This is not just a bona fide mistake made immediately after 1994. My thoughts on this topic were stimulated by a news report yesterday about a court case between a Mossel Bay high school and the Western Cape Education Department. The department wanted to force the school to appoint a black principal and deputy principal, but the school's governing body said it wanted these positions to be appointed on merit. The school won.

Of course we also have to correct the imbalance that exists in the staffing of public and even private institutions. "Normality" would mean all institutions more or less reflecting the demographics of the nation. But that has to be done through responsible, sensible affirmative action, good education and proper training - and never at the expense of efficiency and delivery.

Transformation, in my book, is about bringing about true justice and fairness and making sure all those who were disadvantaged and damaged by apartheid now getting a better life.

If a white engineer or teacher or clerk can help us get there faster, then we need that white person and it would not be in the interest of transformation to get rid of him/her.

Send your comments to Max.

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