Prince Mashele

The problem of the black reservoir

2010-04-19 12:16

The terrible story of Eugene Terre’Blanch and his murders has recast the national spotlight on the race question. Adding Julius Malema into the mix and the visible lack of decisive leadership in South Africa today, our beloved country now appears like a racial boiling pot; we wonder when and how the lid will finally be blown away.

Beyond Terre’Blanche’s barbaric racism and Malema’s racialist imbecility, there are sober South Africans who muse on serious questions. While there are those who cannot resist the force of beneficial amnesia, there is a general agreement in society that post-apartheid South Africa is yet to deal with the race question. However, the most difficult question for blacks and whites is: what does it mean to deal with the race question?

In order for us to cope with the crudity of the answer, we may perhaps need to read WEB Du Bois’ observations regarding the freedom of the Negros in the United States:

The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people – a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly people. (The Souls of Black Folk, 1903)

When we say in South Africa that we are yet to deal with the race question, we basically mean that we are yet to solve the problem of the black reservoir. The black reservoir is a large space, populated by rural areas, townships and shantytowns of uneducated, unemployable and poor black South Africans. These are millions of black people who are victims of history.

When the engineers of apartheid designed the exclusion of black people from education, and when they systematically prevented them from acquiring economic assets that they could later bequeath to their children, apartheid engineers were thereby manufacturing a historical problem; they were constructing a black reservoir. Intelligent as the engineers convinced themselves to be, we now know that they lacked foresight to see that the system they designed would later come back to haunt their own blood relatives. In other words, these apartheid engineers were designing a problem for their own children and grandchildren.

The black reservoir

Indeed, the problem of the black reservoir continues to haunt us today. When Julius Malema engages in his racialist imbecility, he does so in the belief that the black reservoir would clap hands when he ill-treats a white journalist. When newspapermen speculate that he has no support among black people, Julius organises buses to transport the black reservoir to the stadium where he celebrates his birthday. When those in political leadership engage in corruption, they do so in the knowledge that they are guaranteed of the support of the black reservoir.

Many white South Africans know of a black, educated South African they consider exemplary. They look at such a black person and say “with people like Themba, there is hope for South Africa”. But they are quick to up the windows of their cars at an intersection when they see a roaming young black man. They do this because they do not think that the roaming young black man is like Themba.

Unfortunately, there are many more roaming young black men than there are Thembas in our society today. So, when we say that we are yet to deal with the race question, we are basically asking how are we to deal with the roaming young black man - which is the problem of the black reservoir. If our society is to make progress, we need to understand the link between Milimaisation and the problem of the black reservoir.

It should be said that the problem of reservoirs has been there in many societies in history, and there are many examples of other societies that have successfully dealt with their own reservoir problem. South East Asia is one of numerous success cases in this regard. East Germany after the collapse of the Berlin Wall is another model. The Chinese are currently in the process of dealing with their own reservoir problem, call it the problem of the Chinese reservoir.

But why look far? Here at home, the apartheid state also dealt with the problem of the white reservoir; it was called the problem of the poor white. The “problematic” whites were as poor as the roaming young black man. Unlike Themba, these whites where uneducated and unemployable; they were a veritable problem of the white reservoir.

How did apartheid deal with the problem of the white reservoir? It dealt with it through massive whites-only job creation schemes. Parastatals such as ISCOR, Telkom, Eskom, etc were used as job reservation sites for the white reservoir. A poor white person found begging by the road side would be removed swiftly from the street and be given a job in a parastatal or some state-run project. The state would also intervene to ensure that poor whites have decent houses. In many of our old suburbs, we still see houses built by the apartheid state to house poor whites.

Essentially, the apartheid state solved the problem of the white reservoir by providing jobs to uneducated, unemployable and poor whites. Parallel to this, the state ensured that children of poor whites also received good education, in order for them to grow and become better citizens.

Can the problem be solved?

A question then arises: can democratic South Africa do - to solve the problem of the black reservoir - what apartheid South Africa did to deal with the problem of the white reservoir? The answer is a “No” and “Yes”. It is a  “No” because the democratic state does not have the luxury of huge job creation schemes run by the state into which the black reservoir would be bussed for employment.  The expanded public works programme has been a failed attempt by the current government to create such schemes. Unlike a permanent job which was created for a poor white person in Eskom, a poor black ruralitarian hired in post-apartheid South Africa to clear bushes along a rural gravel road is sure to slide back into unemployment in six months.

The “Yes” part of the answer is one in which we must all - black and white - be interested: education. Yes, the democratic state has it within its means to ensure that the children of poor blacks have access to good education; an education that would enable these children - like those of poor whites who were assisted by the apartheid state - to grow and become better citizens. It is the responsibility of the state to ensure that the children of the roaming young black man do not, like their father, see the street as a source of survival. As tax payers, we have a responsibility to exert pressure on government to ensure that our public education system works, and that it produces better citizens. For this is the most promising way of unburdening the future of our country of the problem of the black reservoir.

Only when we have better citizens forming the majority of our population can we come nearer to solving the race question. In other words, we have to deal with the problem of the black reservoir in order for race relations to normalize in our society. If we do not find a solution to this problem, we cannot claim that our nation has found peace from its sins. Nor can we say that the freedman has found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in the years of change since 1994, the shadow of a deep disappointment still rests upon the majority of black people - a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly people.

Mashele is Executive Director of the Centre for Politics and Research (, and a member of the Midrand Group.

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