Opinionista Ryland Fisher 26 May 2013

It’s really all about jobs, not colour

We must look beyond Apartheid’s narrow racial definitions and start to find ways of making sure that our economy grows so that the majority of people will benefit – irrespective of race. And we must inculcate an entrepreneurial culture in all our people.

A few years ago, when an obstreperous young man was causing all kinds of consternation in the country and, in particular, the ruling party, I tried very hard not to write about him. My reason was simply that this young man thrived on publicity and I did not want to feed into the media frenzy that he obviously enjoyed.

I have very much the same attitude to a certain so-called coloured politician who has been on a roll in recent weeks, declaring to all who care to listen – and it seems there are many – that coloured people in South Africa have been wronged and that he and his associates will deal with this issue once and for all.

They intend to hold a conference in a few weeks’ time and their solution seems to be the standard solution of many opposition South African politicians: to start another political party.

I have no problem with people starting new political parties but using racial exclusion as one of the key components of your political identity means that you are probably not going to be around for long. But I suppose not being around in any one political party is something that the so-called coloured leader is used to, having spent time in quite a few of South Africa’s parties over the years.

Let me confess that, while I have tried not to write about both – the not-so-young youth leader and the ageing so-called coloured leader – I have fallen into the trap of inadvertently giving both of them publicity in the past. In fact, as a young journalist a million years ago (seeing that we are busy with confessions, I might as well get this out of the way), I was probably one of the first reporters to do an interview with the so-called coloured leader.

I will, of course, now claim that I was coerced into doing the interview by my news editor, who was known to be very forceful.

There are, of course, similarities between what both politicians have done and are still doing, because both of them are populists who exploit the fears of vulnerable groups.

The not-so-young youth leader exploited the fears of young blacks (and I assumed that he was using the term in its generic sense to include Africans, coloureds and Indians) who were facing the prospect of permanent unemployment.

This is a reality in an economy that refuses to grow at the rate required to create new jobs.

The so-called coloured leader is exploiting the fears of a community which feels side-lined in our relatively new country. What he is not telling the members of that community is that they are not the only ones who are feeling sidelined in South Africa today.

There are many African people who also feel sidelined and who have seen a few getting rich on the back of black economic empowerment while the vast majority remains poor. There are many white people who feel that opportunities that used to be theirs are now closing down to them.

The reason for the coloured unease is real. On the face of it, it seems that coloured people are not benefiting from employment equity and other corrective measures to the same extent as Africans. This is a particular problem in the Western Cape where there is a majority of coloured people and high unemployment levels in many townships.

Many coloured people feel that it was okay for them to be considered black in the Apartheid years, but now that we have a supposedly free country, they are no longer considered black.

The reason for this is simply that there was no potential reward in the Apartheid days so nobody really cared what anybody called themselves.

After 1994, blacks (and I always use the term generically) suddenly had the potential to reap economic benefits based on being previously or historically disadvantaged.

My experience is that when there is the prospect of economic gain, there will always be people who will feel excluded, there will always be people who will try to exclude others and there will always be people who will try to find ways of being included.

Remember how the Chinese a few years ago found a way of making sure that they could be classified black in terms of employment equity when many of them had no interest in being black in the dark days of Apartheid.

Coloured people feel excluded – rightly or wrongly – and will continue to push for inclusion so that they can also gain access to the perceived gains of employment equity and black economic empowerment. And many Africans will try to make sure that the definition of black is as narrow as possible to make sure that there is more of the perceived economic pie to share among fewer people.

My belief is that we need to start looking beyond these narrow Apartheid racial definitions and start embracing our South African identities with more vigour. I’m not saying people should not be coloured or African or white or Indian, but they should not make this their defining identity.

We need to jointly, irrespective of race, find ways of making sure that our economy grows so that the majority of people will benefit; again, irrespective of race. We need to find ways of inculcating an entrepreneurial culture in all our people.

At the heart of our problem is the fact that the economy is not growing fast enough and not creating enough jobs – so everyone is disadvantaged by this, not only coloured people. DM

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