Dear Mr Makhanya, focusing on racism won't solve SA's persistent problems

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Demonstrators at the Johannesburg City Council, demanding that Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba steps down over the remodelling of projects.(Sisa Canca, News24)
Demonstrators at the Johannesburg City Council, demanding that Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba steps down over the remodelling of projects.(Sisa Canca, News24)

Anthea Jeffery 

Mondli Makhanya's critique of the IRR's research begins by acknowledging that current debates on joblessness and other vital issues are "laced with racial suspicion" and "riddled with myths, suppositions, and disdain for fact", all of which "makes it impossible to have rational conversations" ('Dear IRR, Racism is real'). 

But Makhanya himself clearly finds it hard to accept the fact that 77% of black respondents in a recent opinion survey commissioned by the IRR said they had never personally experienced racism directed at them. 

"Where did you find these people?" he queries. The answer, of course (as he could have seen from our Hope report on Race Relations in South Africa), is that a fully representative sample of 1 000 people were interviewed by experienced interviewers, in the languages of their choice, in towns, cities, and rural areas right across the country. 

He also finds it hard to accept that only 4% (not 5%, as he says) of black respondents identified "fighting racism" as one of the two top priorities the government should address – and that only 1% of black respondents wanted the government to focus on "speeding up affirmative action".

His own 'suppositions' seem to be showing. Since 77% of black respondents said they had not personally experienced racism, it is not surprising that only 4% should see "fighting racism" as a key need. Nor is it surprising that only 1% want faster affirmative action, when this policy bypasses and harms the great majority of black South Africans. 

Makhanya brushes over the issues that black respondents do indeed identify as "top priorities" for the government. These are generating more jobs (chosen by 38% of black respondents), improving education (chosen by 26%) and fighting crime (chosen also by 26%). 

Addressing these needs is the government's core responsibility. But instead of meeting them, it has scared off investment, hobbled growth, further restricted jobs through coercive labour laws, and largely wasted the major revenues devoted each year to education and other essentials. 

Makhanya criticises the IRR for pointing out that white racism is not the key reason for government failures over 24 years. He seems to imply that the challenges which black South Africans most urgently want resolved can be overcome through a greater focus on the "big monster" of "racism and racial privilege". 

However, blaming joblessness, illiteracy, violent crime, and homelessness on racism (institutional or other), overloads the concept of racism and makes it more difficult to find targeted solutions to these persistent problems. 

There is no "denialism" nor "odious tone of superiority" in pointing this out, as the IRR has done. On the contrary, we must stop denying the salience of the government's own policy failures if we are ever to have the fact-based and rational debates, the absence of which Makhanya so laments. 

- Dr Anthea Jeffery is the Head of Policy Research at the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes economic and political freedom. 

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