Fear of being branded as “racists” is our real fear. What an insult to black people of South Africa that they should be held to lower standards and encouraged to perform below par because we are too afraid to confront them and demand a higher standard of performance.
White guilt for the years of apartheid is justified. It is right that we should have overwhelming remorse for standing by and allowing the “crime against humanity” to which black people were subjected under the previous regime. But what we are doing now is compounding the crime by looking the other way when we see what so many incompetent leaders are doing. And seeing them getting away with it.
It’s an embarrassment to talk about black and white people in such graphic terms. Are we not beyond all that by now? Well, the answer would seem to be that we are not. Much as we would wish to live in a colour-blind society where race really does not matter anymore, the truth is that it permeates debate and discussion and it matters very much. Whether we talk about the future of our children, the state of our healthcare, education or any other aspect of our lives here, race is, if not one of the top subjects, then always just under the surface.
A shining example of excellent performance is that of auditor-general Terence Nombende who, last week, did not care that he was breaking ranks and heaped scorn on the poor performance of government and public servants for their recklessness and disastrous governance. Three weeks ago Reuel Khoza picked up a great deal of flak for his comments. They are two notable black men who have dared to criticise incumbent leaders and who want to set better standards.
But it is the white people who, generally, are the co-dependent collaborators in this slide into mismanagement. Partly to blame for this is our unique political situation. The ANC is so overwhelmingly powerful and as a political party so dominant the normal checks and balances of a functioning democracy are absent. In first-world countries like Australia, Canada, the UK, US, and even in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) the political party in power has to face a vigorous opposition on a daily basis. If the ruling party does not perform, it is hoofed out. In South Africa, no matter how badly the ANC may perform, the sheer weight of numbers will ensure it stays in power. With its limited number of white supporters the ANC is clearly a “black” party. White people, mostly, have become disengaged.
Of course, there is the DA and Helen Zille is doing a stout defensive job, but she is seen primarily as a Cape-based figure. Which leaves Gauteng, the economic power house of the country, without any meaningful opposition to the ANC.
But my concern is not so much for the politics. It is for the combined effects of disengagement and hyper-sensitivity to be politically correct. Fear of openly criticising any black leader, either in government or the private sector, makes us cower lest we are branded as racists. A black person like Reuel Khoza might get away with it, but white people don’t come into the open. My friends in America tell me that a very similar situation exists there. Any criticism of Barack Obama is immediately branded as racist.
South African business leaders and the chairmen of listed boards, tread very carefully when having to address poor performance if the object of their focus is a black person. They are more inclined to let it slide than they would if a white person were the target. Talented young black people often have to lose the benefit of coaching and constructive criticism for this reason. Watch the “treading on eggshells” when there is any sense of potential conflict and the exaggerated politeness white people tend to show at social gatherings when interacting with those who are black, especially politicians. Julius Malema is in the wilderness for the moment, but remember how white people backed off when he defended bad behaviour by claiming “it is in my culture!”
It is right to call for the playing fields to be levelled. But the process of fixing this is being managed very badly. When a white matriculant with eight distinctions is excluded from medicine or veterinary science to make way for a black matriculant with only a 30% pass, all we are doing is creating resentment and devaluing the qualification. It is not so much the injustice of it. It is that the response and criticism are mostly covert.
One of the most inspiring episodes in the history of this democracy has been the rejection by civil society, the trade unions and anyone who wanted to join the clamour of the misguided e-tolling saga. For once race did not seem to matter. We were united in our efforts, and look what was achieved. Imagine how we could do the same when addressing other national questions, without the fear of open criticism. DM
Johann Redelinghuys is a partner at Heidrick & Struggles the international leadership consulting business, which bought the firm Redelinghuys & Partners of which he was the founder. He has been deeply involved in career management and executive search all his life. He is the chairman of the South African company and now heads up its board practice working with chairmen and CEOs focussed on CEO succession, strategic leadership review and board evaluation.