For people who didn't join the struggle to be stupid
28 April 2017 02:48 (South Africa)
Opinionista DENIS BECKETT

Seriously Sound Politics: What’s all this about parity?

  • DENIS BECKETT
    DENIS-BECKETT.jpg
    DENIS BECKETT
Parity. Such a wonderful word. But it’s not entirely meaningful when we have to wait for it longer than our own lifetimes. Maybe there’s a way around that.

At some uncertain future time the human race ought to reach a point where most people think “I get a square deal, I do work that is right for me to do, I’m on top of that work, I am fairly paid; the same generally applies to people around me”.

Parts of this planet grow into that status now; some parts may have always known it. Some parts, you wouldn’t bet on getting there in a hurry. Some parts maybe not at all. I fear that our part may be among these latter, not least because we aren’t trying. We don’t seem to be aiming for that. We are aiming for “parity”.

“Parity” is a lovely word, motherhood and apple pie. Until it distorts into a statistical prison. In 2007 Eskom’s human resource boss Mpho Letlape was proud to meet her target, which was that 50% of Eskom appointments at all levels went to black women. (Delivering Mpho a R2.6 million bonus). Setting that target, Eskom’s execs were surely proud to pursue the noble aim of parity. I wonder if they still think that. I wonder if they will one day let us know how people taken on for their race and gender survive and thrive in comparison with people taken on for their skill and interest.

A recent radio debate put a new light on parity, for me. Some Institute had calculated that on current course, gender parity is 81 years away. It’ll be 81 years until 50% of soldiers are female, 50% of beauticians are male, 50% of plumbers are female, and so on. The discussion was quite wry but very shocked – “can you believe we are this backward; it’s much worse than you thought”. It got me asking: is parity the right thing to aim for, whether in 81 years or 1,000?

Nobody can overlook the downsides of parity. It creates two-tier professions, in effect telling clients whose own money is at risk to select the non-parity lawyer. It submits its beneficiaries to the agony of occupying a role that they and their colleagues know they are not filling. It devalues the truest heroes, people who climbed out of disadvantage by their own efforts and are now presumed to be among the ones for whom the rules were softened. It sends spurned skills to enrich other countries, invariably countries that are rich already. One can almost laugh when people denouncing Apartheid’s sins echo Apartheid’s original sin, dividing the country into groups with group rights, but the effects aren’t laughable. You tell Joe at 45 “we’re hurdling 10 guys to make you CEO” and at 60 Joe is an embittered broken hasbeen instead of a useful senior manager.

Tragedies lie in colour-coding the human race. Despite that, we go on digging ourselves deeper. Why? For a strong reason. After centuries of one crowd giving the orders that another crowd obeyed, freedom happens. Politicians and people alike truly, deeply desire this freedom to have meaning, but meaning is hard to see. Right now we’re have a fine case. The Shangaan district of Malamulele, a town and 80 villages, gets in a twist about being the poor stepsister in a Venda municipality, and is slapped down by the new lords as sharply as in Oppression days.

In the absence of compelling freedom to display, the urge to demonstrate freedom distils into a frantic upholding of chairmen and CEOs to public view while proclaiming “Look how well our people are doing!” Of people who hit the heights naturally, as the right person to hit that height, that’s great. Of people who are imploding by being pushed onto too fast a track, it’s sick.

Not that frantic freedom is the only cause of artificial height-hitting. There are base motives too; greed, the ruling party’s mysterious internal wars, more… But the fundamental reason we are watching our country wither while high-ranking heads roll faster than Henry VIII’s wives is that “freedom” offers little more than the invitation to take pride in having your man up there at the apex.

I shudder at the vista of decades of wrangling over parity. We’ve seen one somersault already. Indian people used to be a plus on the parity scale, and might still be, for the filling of racist forms, but they’re a liability in some Very Important Minds. Is this where Coloured people go to next? Do we then come to correcting the overrepresentation of Xhosas? Will children being born today come to a time of wishing their parents had bequeathed them more acceptable genes?

I want out of that, and I’m pretty sure that you do too. But here’s where we differ. I don’t believe that you see any way out of it, other than wish and pray and head-in-sand. Assuming you are not among the handful of Seriously Sound Politics enthusiasts, idea so you can see only two options. One is government digging the mire ever deeper, with more parity causing more withering and the blame being placed on not enough parity. The other is a new government trying to undo parity while a new liberation war gets going to the cry of “our hard-won freedom is being stolen from us”.

When we step up to the political system based on the real rule of the people, freedom is so evident that no bumbling government needs sleight of hand to conjure it up. Voters will be in constant control; they can see the things that they influence, they can see the effects of their votes. They can get what they want; they lose their paranoias about symbols.

Plus – the end user is calling the shots. If I get foul water or no water out of my humble shackland tap, I use my newly effective vote to show what I think. If I get alien smart-alec administrators treating my concerns for my community with disdain, I use my newly effective vote to show what I think. Politicians who want to keep their jobs do not what Ministers tell them or celebrities tell them, but what I tell them, I, Mr/ Ms Ordinary.

In the course of which, Malamulele-style barricading of roads and burning of vehicles meets a quick and silent death. The guy who is so passionate and so unheard that he must cause chaos so that reporters will arrive and quote his threats… that guy changes tack. It’s his own community that he primarily needs to persuade of his cause, and their anonymous and effective votes at their local ballot don’t go to someone who disrupts their lives.

In a society built on seriously sound politics, politicians’ behaviour is determined by tolerance threshold of Mr & Ms Ordinary, the ones who have been keeping carefully out of sight while the fierce few light the tyres and strew the rocks. It isn’t the police that keep activists in order, it’s that the activists are scared of Ms Ordinary taking her vote away if they give her a fright. All that is needed is the cast iron political system that leaves no space for political activity outside the judgment of voters.

And how do you get that give that? Piss-easily, actually. I’ll get there in this series, if Daily Maverick’s patience persists. If you want to short-circuit you go to my book Demogarchy, which you Google on Amazon. Kindly notice that this column and that book are about exiting the era of wailing about politics and entering the era of making politics work. This is about a system, one that does not yet exist though it will be pretty self-evident in time to come. It’s for people prepared to look laterally – and sceptically, of course – at hastening that time. Kindly don’t expect this column to be about dumping on the people you don’t like. If that is what you want of a column, you’re in the wrong place and are most welcome to go away. Why it is that people feel the need to fling a few random insults around as they depart I don’t know, but I suppose it takes all kinds.

To Roy Blumenthal, Peter Hunter, John Clarke and others who demand Action Stations and What Do I Do Now, apologies, I have a full reply coming but here is a short one: the only thing to be done now is to establish that the real rule of the people is everybody’s route to sound politics. You few, and a handful more, might feel that you are already there and I’m wasting time restating it, but I think you’ve had the experience of telling friends that this is the way to go and having friends dump on you for being gullible, insane, handing the country to the rabble, introducing chaos, and so forth. So stick around a little. It might be a bit glacial but step one is to just get across the basics.

While one voice is doing that, on and on, it’ll keep sounding weird and nuts. Once there are a hundred voices, it’ll take off. Some prosperous middle-class characters will catch a skrik and so will some lefty dynamiters, but most ordinary people, rich or poor, will embrace the notion of the next level of politics offering fulfilment all-round. Hang on in. Time is longer than rope. DM

  • DENIS BECKETT
    DENIS-BECKETT.jpg
    DENIS BECKETT

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