BEYOND RACIAL CATEGORIES OP-ED
We dare not be overwhelmed with despair – we have been here before and beat the odds
We dare not allow the multiple crises confronting us to overwhelm us with despair. We have been here before, and beat the odds to emerge victorious as a people who clubbed together to defeat a powerful evil system. We can do it again if we work together as a rich, diverse human family.
Ashraf Jamal, the art critic, in his short, powerful book, Looking into History’s Mad Eye Without Blinking, reminds us that the South African home and the art through which it expresses itself, is in search of a new ideal, one that is truly caring and nurturing. We need only look around us to see how young people are coming together to commit to leading this country out of its morass, just like their peer group of the 1970s and 1980s did in the darkest hour of a brutal apartheid regime.
The current government seems not to have learnt from our painful history. Their insistence on focusing on the use of racial categories created and used to divide and conquer us, as a tool to correct the inequities of the past, is undermining the healing of our souls to enable our emergence from pain as one human family our beautiful country is yearning for. All wisdom points to the folly of using the same logic that created a problem to solve the same problem.
The Employment Equity Act of 1998 has failed to promote the social equity we seek in the employment of citizens of this beloved country. More of the same, however more stringent as is being proposed by the government, is unlikely to make any difference. If anything, it might make things worse as employers learn to game the system even more, leading to conflict and polarisation.
The root problem of inequity in our society is our failure over the past 30 years to unleash the energy, creativity and innovation of the youthful population to lead and shape the future we desire. We had the opportunity to radically transform the inequitable 19th-century education we inherited into education for all of the highest quality to unleash the talents of each person to enable them to contribute to sustainable, shared prosperity. Instead we are now sitting with the crying shame of 70% unemployment in the 15- to -24-year age group, and a national rate of close to 40%.
Government handouts to garner votes is an affront to the dignity of the majority of the 18 million citizens who would love nothing more than the opportunity to work and provide for themselves and their families.
Millions of young people have dropped out of our failing education system that has seen 81% of Grade 4 pupils not able to read with meaning. This is an education system that does not meet its own norms and standards in the provision of basic requirements: school facilities, including safe, clean toilets, adequately qualified teachers, class sizes that enable teaching and learning to be a joy, books and stationery for all pupils, school nutrition for the needy. Our education system has failed to qualify enough confident, skilled, critically thinking professionals and entrepreneurs, who would have been at the forefront of transforming our economy through the sheer force of numbers, determination and capabilities.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Have degree, will work: Unemployed graduate crisis takes its toll on SA’s youth
Successive post-apartheid governments have failed to demonstrate the capacity to govern effectively. Policy enactment, implementation and monitoring and evaluation are below par and have failed the test of being geared to benefit all citizens for the common good. The dream of a society characterised by equity and well-being for all, is possible. It requires that every act by public representatives and civil servants be judged by how it sustainably restores the dignity and self-worth of the most vulnerable poor people in our country. That requires adherence to the constitutional requirement of a professional public service, whose focus is on serving the public and the nation, and not parties or factions thereof.
Poor people are not “the poor”. They are human beings who are struggling to regain their dignity and self-worth so they can contribute to their families and communities, where Ubuntu is not a slogan but a lived reality. Government handouts to garner votes is an affront to the dignity of the majority of the 18 million citizens who would love nothing more than the opportunity to work and provide for themselves and their families.
Every social problem in our society presents an opportunity for interventions that can generate change in the lives of people in many contexts. Take our physical infrastructure, most of which was inherited from the apartheid years. State Capture has consumed trillions of rands that should have gone into roads, railways, housing, water and sanitation, electricity and much more. Imagine how many sustainable training and job opportunities could be created to absorb not only the young unemployed people, but many others with professional qualifications without jobs.
It is time for the government to actively recover the stolen trillions from known criminals fingered by the Zondo Commission. Strengthening the NPA and SIU is critically important to successfully claw back these resources from criminals to fund essential public investments. The government must also tighten its own expenditure belts by doing away with unnecessary comforts that rub salt into the wounds of poor people: luxury cars, multiple houses for ministers with generators, unnecessary travels at home and abroad, and much more. The legacy of the self-serving apartheid-era Ministerial Handbook is alive and well among those claiming to be our liberators.
Read more in Daily Maverick: New Global Compassion Coalition wants us to embed compassionate thinking into daily life
Achille Mbembe, the renowned Cameroonian philosopher/historian, cautions us that unless we extend our imagination, and properly articulate what must stand in lieu of what has been overthrown, we might end up with the politics of ruin over anticipatory politics. Inequality has increased over the past 30 years of democratic governments. Inequality is expensive for both rich and poor. We have already seen glimpses of the ruin that might become our ongoing reality in the riots and looting of July 2021. Much more is to come as many more communities grow tired of being ignored.
We need to have the courage to look into the mad eye of history and not blink, but learn its lessons. We must reimagine our society beyond the racial categories imposed upon us by colonial conquerors. Africa, as the cradle of humanity, understood that there is only one race – the human race, the human family that is interconnected and interdependent. We dare not fail to move forward with deliberate speed to unleash the power of this human family to ensure the well-being for all in sustainable ecosystems. DM
Mamphela Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA, co-president of the Club of Rome, and board member of the newly formed Global Compassion Coalition.