South Africa: What blacks really want from whites

2015-03-14 05:11

What do blacks want from whites? Before someone points out, as I am sure someone will, I accept that the question is a sad oversimplification. It draws a sharp line between blacks and whites, which borders on pencil test idiocy. Yet, I want to ask it anyway. What do black South Africans want from white South Africans?

The answer depends on whom you ask. Far-left black radicals will say the answer is land and means of production. Far-right white conservatives will say blacks want revenge and to freeload on white guilt. The more nuanced academicians and activists will say blacks want whites to acknowledge the social and economic violence of white privilege. My view is simpler: blacks want whites to hold up their end of the bargain.

Except for the irate “Red Balloon Brigade” and its imagined “white genocide”—there is broad consensus that black South Africans have held up their end of the bargain.

Whites, on balance, are integrated into the new South Africa; enjoy the equal constitutional protections with zero reprisals for apartheid violence, even for the worst apartheid criminals. The worst that has happened to whites since democracy is, perhaps, having to share public amenities with blacks or to fend off common criminals from upmarket suburbs.

Blacks, on the other hand, continue to live in squalor, under repressive and inhumane conditions in apartheid-style townships like Khayelitsha and Thembisa. Blacks have to constantly negotiate recognition and equality. Transformative and reconciliatory programmes like BEE, even though part of the negotiated settlement, are vehemently contested, if not outright rejected, by a majority of whites.

A common response by whites is, "How is my fault that black people still live in poverty? I pay my taxes and government squanders it through corruption and mismanagement." The Zille-sque insinuation is that blacks deserve poverty because of who they elect to run the country.

This response, even if fair, is not accurate. It is not true that government has enough resources completely eradicate poverty, even if we discount the R50-or-so-billion lost to government corruption and mismanagement.

To get the resources necessary to eradicate poverty, the white-collar segment of our nation, which is largely white, must commit to more taxes and higher blue-collar wages. Government must introduce a progressive valued-added tax system, in order to tax poor people less; reduce infrastructure spending on developed areas, in order to spend more on rural communities; and reign in on white-collar corruption and on anticompetitive practices.

Successive administrations, including Mandela's, have attempted these programmes, abortively. The best example is the 1994 Redistribution and Development Programme. The white-collar class and the mega rich lobbied extensively against the policy and threatened capital flight.

Economic power is political power

The indisputable truth is that in our current political configuration, majoritarian power of the ballot is a mirage. Money, the market and the economy are the true centres of political power.

Without money to fund regular elections, our political rights—and the values on which our society is founded—would become a joke. Without the revenue necessary for socio-economic relief, our celebrated socio-economic rights will not be worth the paper they are written on.

The Gupta family and Cyril Ramaphosa notoriously brought public attention to the political clout of the mega rich. Consider then that of the 21 richest South Africans, only 3 are black and ask yourself, who really holds political power in South Africa.

I said before that the question what do blacks want from whites is an oversimplification, mostly because the middle-class is expanding to include more blacks. However, it is an indispensible oversimplification.

An inescapable fact is that white South Africans have immense economic power. Economic power translates to political capital, which is used to scuttle progressive and redistributive policies. Even poor white South Africans are cajoled into opposing redistribution and are propped up as "victims" of black revenge.

I do not claim to speak on behalf of all blacks. My sense, though, is that for our society to remedy its nasty past, white South Africans need to acknowledge their past and present role in perpetuating black poverty. Whites need to acknowledge that their clasp on economic power and their indifference about black poverty are a serious threat to our constitutional democracy.

White South Africans need to hold up their end of the negotiated settlement. Equal sharing of resources (like land and minerals), equal access to the economy and a commitment to majoritarian democracy are essential components of the compromise.

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