Opinionista Ryland Fisher 6 May 2013

For much longer will we play the race card?

“Previously disadvantaged” is not necessarily synonymous with “black”. We need to look past racial lines if we want to address the biggest inequalities of the past.

At the beginning of this year, I was disgusted when a young woman, a friend of my daughter, was refused entry into UCT despite her excellent grades. The only reason she could have been refused was because of her race.

Over the years I had got to know her family and, while they might be classified as “previously advantaged” in South Africa’s complicated post-Apartheid racial categorisation, they are definitely not “economically advantaged”.

She eventually got accepted at Stellenbosch University so, I suppose, all is well that ends well. But is it?

I thought about this incident a lot in the past week or so as I read the reports about the court case involving Correctional Services employees in the Western Cape who claimed that they were overlooked for promotion because of their race. The employees are white and coloured and they claim that African black candidates were given preference over them.

No one said that South Africa would be able to sort out all its racial or economic problems in 19 years, and what happened in court this week was probably to be expected at some point in our democracy.

In one’s attempts at redressing the wrongs of Apartheid, there always had to be groups who would feel that they are being disadvantaged, especially those who were advantaged in the past. But even people who feel that they were never advantaged, could potentially feel that they are now being disadvantaged.

What is happening in South Africa is a necessary part of change. We need to transform our country and its economy from one that largely benefited whites at the expense of everyone else. Not too long ago, whites owned and controlled most of the businesses in South Africa, and black people, by and large, were excluded from the economy. Many black business people had to get whites to “front” for them so that they could conduct business.

It was far easier for whites to study to become professionals, whether it was to become a doctor, accountant or a lawyer.

For instance, when I wanted to study journalism about 30 years ago, I had to get special government permission to study at a white university because that was the only place where I could study journalism.

Nowadays, of course, things are very different. One can study journalism just about anywhere in the country. In fact, one can study just about anything anywhere in the country.

This is positive change but one cannot get away from the fact that some people are uncomfortable with the changes in our society, rightly or wrongly.

The big question for me is how much longer we can use race as a deciding factor in the transformation of our society.

I remember a few years ago, when I interviewed Melanie Verwoerd, South Africa’s then-ambassador to Ireland, she told me how excited she was to discover that most of the staff at the South African embassy in Ireland were black Africans. However, her joy was short-lived when she discovered that most of them were from the former homelands and they hated the South African government and the ruling ANC with a passion.

I also remember how, a few years ago, the son of a “coloured” activist was overlooked for a bursary which went to the son of a former homeland leader. The only criterion was race. The activist was from a working class background; the former homeland leader clearly not.

There is a part of me that feels very strongly that we now need to move beyond race when we look at addressing the wrongs of our society. We need to rather look at how economically disadvantaged people are when we decide whether there should be special dispensation for them.

What will inevitably happen is that mainly black people (Africans, coloureds and Indians) will benefit because they still represent most of the poorest of the poor in our deeply divided society.

At least, if we decide to adopt economic disadvantage (and not previously economic disadvantage) as the key marker for transformation, we will be able to avoid a situation where someone whose parents or grandparents might have been advantaged – while they are not – is not overlooked for preferential treatment.

It will also mean that the children of BEE tycoons will not be able to claim “previously disadvantaged” status at the expense of people who so desperately need help.

I understand that government felt the need to make Correctional Services in the Western Cape roughly representative of the demographics of the country, but, in my very humble opinion, demographics should never be the main driver. It should merely be one of the factors that should be considered. Mindset, for instance, should probably be an even more important factor.

There are probably some people who will accuse me of being naïve, but I sincerely believe that we need to look beyond race. By rather looking at economic means, we might just be able to address our society’s racial inequalities. DM

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