Irony is woven into South Africa’s political fabric. But, even for someone as immune to it as I am, this week’s debate on affirmative action hosted by the Black Management Forum took irony to a new level.
The topic focused on affirmative action’s impact 20 years into our democracy.
The BMF’s point of departure was that affirmative action has not been effective enough. Therefore the state must strengthen interventionist and punitive measures in the economy to compel enterprises to comply with strict racial quotas.
I agreed that the coercive approach had not benefited the vast majority of “outsiders”, while enriching a small clique of connected insiders to the tune of almost R500-billion in share transfers. But, I said, intensifying this approach would not produce a different result. In fact it would kill growth and jobs and accelerate the economic exclusion of the majority.
When I described certain clauses in the Employment Equity Amendment Bill as “Verwoerdian” I was stunned at the response. Several speakers rose to defend the architect of apartheid. Hendrik Verwoerd, they said, had lifted Afrikaners out of poverty through rigorous state intervention in the economy which included inflexible affirmative action to benefit “his people”. This necessarily involved keeping other people out. The conclusion? “We now need a leader who will do the same for our people.”
The ANC’s representative in the debate, Enoch Godongwana (who also chairs its transformation committee) agreed. The ANC, he said, would be unapologetic in pursuing “Verwoerdian” tactics and would “unashamedly use quotas in every sector of the economy”.
He seemed unaware that, in our democracy, Verwoerd’s methods are both unconstitutional and unlawful. Even the draconian Employment Equity Amendments, currently making their way through Parliament, expressly rule out quotas.
But in that audience, racial nationalism and state-sponsored social engineering were considered “progressive” ideas (as long as they work for you). Apartheid is dead! Long live apartheid!
Still reeling from this proud embrace of racial nationalism by the party of liberation, I was then taken aback by the input of Dr Dirk Herman, representing Solidarity (which has historic roots in the white, Mineworkers Union that in the 1920s mobilised under the slogan “Workers of the world unite and fight for a white South Africa!”).
Now, 20 years after democracy, Dr Herman’s speech echoed the sentiments of civil rights icon, Martin Luther King Junior. Speaking about his four daughters he said: “I do not want them to grow up in a society where they will merely be a statistic measured against a racial quota. I am working for a country in which they will be judged by their attributes and contributions, not the colour of their skin.”
Almost all of Solidarity’s predecessors would have supported Hendrik Verwoerd’s “colour bar” and the myriad laws that placed an impenetrable ceiling on black advancement in the economy. Almost all of the Black Management Forum’s predecessors would have supported Martin Luther’s rallying call to judge people by the content of their character, not the colour of their skin.
Yet here we were in a new South Africa with the roles reversed. Ja-Nee. Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass.
Whether racial nationalism works for you, depends on how much political power you have. That is why abusing power is so attractive to majorities. And that is why losing power is the quickest way to covert minorities to the importance of constitutionalism and the rule of law that protects each individual’s rights to choose their own identity and offers everyone the opportunities and the means to use their freedoms.
And that is why the essence of democracy is a constitution that prevents the abuse of power in pursuit of an ideology – or the personal benefit of a ruling clique.
20 years after democracy we have come full circle in South Africa, a point driven home in an extract from the state’s submission to a recent court case (Naidoo vs SAPS) in which a policewoman claimed she was not promoted because of her race. This, she argued, was unfair discrimination.
The state’s defence justified the non-promotion of Ms Naidoo was recorded in court as follows:
“The calculation used to determine the race and gender allocation was as follows: 19 positions on level 14 are multiplied by the national demographic figure for a specific race group, e.g. 19 positions x 79% Africans = 15 of 19 posts must be filled by Africans. Then 15 x 70% = 11 positions to be filled by African males, minus the current status of seven, meaning there is a shortage of four African males.
“For Indian females the calculation is 19 x 2,5% = 0,5 positions to be filled by Indians, then 0,5 x 30% = 0,1 Indian females and that is rounded off to zero. Of the five available positions 0,125 could go to Indians x 30% gender allocation means 0,037 could be allocated to Indian females and that is rounded to zero.”
That means, according to the SAPS’ understanding of quota-driven employment equity, no Indian female, no matter how diligent, no matter how good she is at her job, no matter her qualifications and experience, she can never be promoted to a senior position in the SAPS because she cannot meet the requirements of a racial quota. According to the new Verwoerdianism, there are too few Indians in South Africa to justify any one of them reaching a top position in the SAPS, whatever their individual merits. Demography is destiny.
This approach is as tragic and as absurd as apartheid’s annual apartheid race re-classifications, which formed part of the ritual of enforcing racial classification.
In 1984, for example, “518 coloureds became white, 2 whites became Chinese, 1 white became Indian, 1 white became coloured, 89 coloureds became black.”
And, just as apartheid created a category of “honorary whites” (for example to enable the children of black diplomats to attend “white” schools), the ANC allows a few exemptions. The Guptas and Vivian Reddy understand the criteria well.
But South Africa is a much better place today than it was under apartheid precisely because our constitution expressly forbids this kind of abuse.
That is why Ms Naidoo and many other applicants have succeeded in demonstrating “unfair discrimination” before our courts, said Dr Herman.
A speaker from the floor disagreed. The reason, that Ms Naidoo and others in her position were winning their court cases, she said, was that “our judiciary remains untransformed”.
I made the point that South Africa’s democracy would be lost if a court case was determined by the colour of the accused, the applicant, the defendant or the judge. At least Mr Godongwana agreed on this point. But, he added, transformation required that progressive judges be chosen (read ANC-supporting).
The views articulated in the name of the ANC during that debate are a million miles from the position taken by former President Nelson Mandela on almost every relevant point – and a contradiction of our rights-based constitution.
As these extraordinary interchanges unfolded, I watched the response of the many journalists in the audience. With few exceptions they clearly did not grasp the historical significance of what was unfolding before them. They were waiting for something “newsworthy” to happen.
It came in the form of a question to me from the floor: “Is Lindiwe Mazibuko a token black in the DA’s leadership?” the questioner wanted to know.
The journalists perked up. Here came their story. Pens at the ready, TV cameras rolling.
For my part, I was amazed that an audience that almost unanimously supported the imposition of racial quotas would, at the same time reject tokenism.
I rejected the allegation against Lindiwe out of hand. I said she had been elected as the DA’s Parliamentary leader, at a very young age, because she had the necessary attributes for the job: intelligence, articulacy, excellent debating skills, and an understanding of political issues. And, I added, she was black. A titter went up in the audience, as if they had caught me out. Their “gotcha” moment. I told them they could not have it both ways. If they demanded that race be a criteria for promotion they could not decry me for mentioning the relevance of Lindiwe’s race. I added that I could not imagine a situation where a young white person, no matter how brilliant, would be elected as leader of the DA’s Parliamentary caucus at the age of 31 after being on Parliament’s benches for just two years. But that certainly did not imply that Lindiwe was a token. It meant race was a factor in her election, but definitely not the only one. She had the necessary attributes as well. And it illustrated the DA’s approach: we open opportunities for hard-working committed people, who have the qualities required for the job. It is then their responsibility to use those opportunities well.
After that debate, I understood why our approach is so difficult to explain and understand, even to some members of our own caucus. That is why, at our policy conference this coming weekend, we will thrash out all its elements and present them, yet again, at a press conference. And over time, our approach, which aligns with the constitution, will become standard practice. If it doesn’t we cannot build an open, opportunity society for all.