SHADOW OF RAGE
Despite high hopes, South Africa has failed to create a racially blind society
Sunday, August 20, 2006
For decades in South Africa, nonracialism -- a vision of a society in which racial categories would cease to be important and even fall away -- was a central principle of the anti-apartheid movement.
It was a breathtaking notion: that perhaps the most explicitly racist society on the planet could be transformed into a racial nirvana that would obliterate racial distinctions imposed on the population by the apartheid state.
But today, a dozen years after apartheid officially ended, South Africa is still a long way from creating a "nonracial society." South Africans are finding it hard to throw off a racial grid that has left a deep mark on the psyche and structure of the entire society.
Instead of disappearing, racial classifications are still a potent force. But this time it is whites, and to a lesser extent, "colored" (mixed race) and Indian South Africans who feel discriminated against.
Whites who were once favored to get jobs, especially in government, now find themselves at the back of the line, and many wonder whether there is a place for them in the new South Africa.
"In every ministry and municipality, on the railways and in the power stations, in the technikons (technical colleges) and universities, there has been a clearing out of white expertise," fumed R.W. Johnson in an Aug. 2 column in Business Day, South Africa's major business newspaper. "In many cases the replacements can't do their jobs, but in many cases senior jobs just sit unfilled because no one's willing to employ a white. ... Whites have been shoved out everywhere, hugely contributing to the skills crisis, and a far narrower inward-looking Africanism has taken its place."
The emerging movement to "Africanize" South Africa has infused race into issues as diverse as the causes and treatment of AIDS and African contributions to the art of Pablo Picasso.
These days, the term "rainbow nation" has almost disappeared from national discourse. And when it is used, it is to describe what South Africa might become, rather than what it is.
Almost every sector of the society is being goaded by the government to become more representative of the majority black population -- from the now-largely white ownership of the media and the faculty at leading universities to the makeup of cricket and rugby teams and the command structure of the defense force.
It's sobering to note that even though Nelson Mandela became the country's first black president in 1994 (and stepped down in 1999), 75 percent of the colonels and lieutenant colonels in the defense force are still white.
"I still hope and hold on to the ideal of nonracialism," said Khehla Shubane, a former political prisoner on Robben Island who became executive director of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. He is now director of Business Map Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps companies become more racially representative. "But I think in fashioning the nonracial idea, not enough thought was given to how we get from where we were to where we want to be."
Clearly, the vision of a race-free South Africa -- embodied in the principle of nonracialism articulated by the African National Congress for a half century or more -- did not fully anticipate how racial inequities would be eradicated in a post-apartheid society. Before being able to do away with race, President Thabo Mbeki and others in the ruling ANC argue, racial categories can be used to level the playing field, to make sure that whites don't continue to own all the resources in the society, and to free up the latent talent in the black population for whom avenues of expression were blocked by apartheid-era laws. To ignore the racial architecture created by apartheid, they argue, would effectively leave white privilege untouched.
South Africa's 10-year-old constitution specifically mentions "nonracialism" as a pillar on which the new society should be built. The constitution prohibits "unfair discrimination" against anyone on the basis of race. But it also allows for "legislative and other measures" to "achieve equality" and to "protect or advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination."
That provision, Article 9, has opened the door to perhaps the most aggressive affirmative action program anywhere in the world -- not to benefit a minority, as in the United States, but to benefit the 90 percent of the population who are black, colored or Indian. (South Africa's population of 45 million is 79 percent black, 9.6 percent white, 8.9 percent colored and 2.5 percent Indian, of Asian descent). Almost every significant institution in both the private and public sectors has what are called "transformation units" staffed by "transformation managers" whose job it is to implement "transformation charters" intended to make their institutions more racially representative.
Those companies that don't change run the risk of being publicly ridiculed, frozen out of business deals or losing government funding.
The government has issued "codes of good practice" that include criteria for giving preferences to black-owned businesses in government contracts. Different sectors of the economy -- mining, petroleum and liquid fuels, financial services, information technology and so on -- have also been expected to come up with industrywide charters that commit particular sectors to diversify ownership and employment. Although they are supposed to be voluntary, in effect any company that wants to get a government contract must subscribe to an industry charter.
No program has been more controversial than "black economic empowerment," or BEE, as it is commonly called. Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as president in 1999, has made creation of a "black capitalist class" the top priority of his government. The "Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment Act" of 2003 has created a massive transfer of corporate wealth to a small but growing black elite -- many of the now extremely wealthy black businessmen were former anti-apartheid activists and senior members of Mandela's post-apartheid government.
Among the best known is Tokyo Sexwale, the former premier of Gauteng province, now reportedly a billionaire who has acquired three aircraft, including a Lear Jet he bought for his wife on Valentine's Day. Last year alone, black empowerment deals helped create nearly 6,000 millionaires.
The government argues that by forcing companies to diversify their ownership, South Africa is moving toward "deracializing" the society as a whole. But the program has been tarnished by a range of criticisms, including that in too many instances white-owned companies have used blacks in a practice known as "fronting" to secure government contracts even as the companies remain effectively controlled by whites.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu harshly criticized the government for programs that enrich a black elite "at the stroke of a pen" while most black South Africans still live in absolute poverty. "What is black empowerment when it seems to benefit not the vast majority but a small elite that tends to be recycled?" he pointedly asked in the high-profile Nelson Mandela Foundation lecture in November 2004. "Are we not building up much resentment that we may rue later? It will not do to say people did not complain when whites were enriched. When were the standards of the old regime our standards?"
The persistence of racial categories has been reinforced by an accelerating effort, articulated by Mbeki and others at the highest levels of government, to transform South Africa into a fully "African" country. The "Africanist" impulse explains at least in part Mbeki's bizarre flirtation with AIDS dissidents who questioned the link between HIV and AIDS. Mbeki viewed the explanation that AIDS is spread by sexual promiscuity among African males as just another version of racist Western stereotypes, and he saw the marketing of expensive HIV drugs by pharmaceutical companies as an extension of centuries-long exploitation of Africa by white commercial interests with profits rather than the interests of Africans in mind.
An entirely different controversy erupted when Sandile Memela, an official in the government's Department of Arts and Culture, took aim at an art exhibition in Johannesburg this spring on "Picasso and Africa." Memela said that the exhibit, intended to show the influence of Africa on Picasso, instead emphasized Picasso's genius rather than the brilliance of the African art forms he appropriated. "Picasso would not have been the renowned, creative genius ... if he did not steal and readapt the work of 'anonymous' African artists," he wrote. He accused the mostly white organizers of the exhibit of "losing a golden opportunity to put not only the work of so-called 'anonymous' African artists on a pedestal, but to reignite African pride by acknowledging African's influence on his style."
"We haven't achieved a nonracial society," conceded Albie Sachs, a justice on South Africa's Constitutional Court who barely survived assassination when a bomb exploded in the car he was driving while in exile in Mozambique in 1988.
At the same time, he argues, South Africa is doing "exceptionally well" in how it is coping with race relations in a society that many feared would be destroyed by racial wars. "One reason we are doing so well is that we are putting the problems on the table," said Sachs, who is white. "We acknowledge the reality of racism and the way it enters our conscious and unconscious mind, and it is often very painful to do that. But to pretend that we can look at the society with color-blind spectacles is an illusion."
Racial categories, he said, don't just "fall away." "They progressively diminish in importance," he said. Attempting to create a "race-free" society would have brought its own perils, he argues. "You don't want a homogenized melting pot, one that typically takes on the character of the former dominant group, so that we'd all end up talking English, wearing trousers with a neat crease in them, and take on the character of the middle-class Englishman. That is not what South Africa needs."
In recent weeks, resentment against the ruling ANC's insistence on using racial classifications has boiled over in a cascade of criticism.
"If you make yourself a hostage to a racist past, you can plan on a racist future," said Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, a former leader of the opposition in the white Parliament of the 1980s.
In hindsight, the dream that South Africa could be turned suddenly into a racial paradise after the horrors and history of apartheid was hopelessly naive."
"Nonracialism does not mean the removal of the significance of 'race,' even if 'race' is an unscientific category," wrote Raymond Suttner, a leading theorist and member of the South African Communist Party in the Mail & Guardian. He scolded whites who had been active in fighting apartheid but are now upset about programs that seem to defer the nonracial ideal. "The constitutional entrenchment of nonracialism does not remove the cumulative effects of apartheid on black people. Unscientific it may be, but the legacy of 'race' will be with us for many years."
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.c ... FV2828.DTL