In the late eighties, one of the sickest signs of apartheid in the Groote Schuur group of hospitals was its segregated crèche for staff children. Every morning, cleaners, nurses and doctors would drop their children off at the common facility on Main Street in Observatory.
There, they were met by friendly pre-school teachers who would triage them into different classrooms based on the colour of their skins. “Black” and “white” children would only see each other at break time, playfully holding hands through the diamond mesh fencing that divided the playground in two.
What better way to perpetuate racial thinking than to embed it in the minds of children? Where easier to normalise abnormality but in spaces where children feel happy and secure; where identity formation is distorted by defective wiring of the brain fused into place through acts experienced as love, not cruelty?
Fast-forward 30 years and the way in which some aspects of broad-based black economic empowerment are playing out must have Verwoerd smiling in his grave. For example, the B-BBEE codes of good practice recognise the full value of a company’s contribution to socio-economic development if more than 75% of beneficiaries are black. Yet non-government organisations vying for corporate funding find themselves forced to comply with directives from companies and BEE rating agencies to ask impoverished mothers in gloriously mixed communities whether their children are Indian, coloured or African.
Stop for a minute and reflect on what we are doing. We are imposing racial classification as the dominant attribute of an individual instead of as a fluid and informal group-name that some people may choose to apply to themselves. We are asking poor and marginalised South Africans who already feel small and invisible to identify themselves in the language of oppression which ranked whites at the top and Africans at the bottom, with Indians and coloureds in-between.
The intention may be to subvert these social rankings, foster black pride and facilitate the transfer of economic power, but it is undercut by adherence to the phylogenetic fictions of apartheid. In the politically contrived struggle for status, à la apartheid, coloureds are pitted against Indians and African, and Africans pitted against each other (local versus foreigner).
In the final analysis though, the real issues concern empowerment and access to resources. Not surprisingly, they stoke both intra-group tensions and xenophobia. In contrast, these socio-economic struggles seem to barely register on the radars of the 9% of South Africans who are whiter and wealthier. They feel little need to change and have no incentive to engage in nation-building. For those whites who seek to protect their own privilege, it suits them to be treated as “other”, allowing them to define themselves outside of this struggle.
In an equally difficult zone are community trusts whose raison d’être is the distribution of the benefits of dividend flows from businesses in which they have a stake. This shareholding is based on their directing funds to black beneficiaries only, even when the benefit takes the form of community empowerment programmes like healthcare or early learning.
Legislators may not have contemplated the perverse effects when this condition was baked into licensing requirements and community trust deeds. The problem arises when communities start to “normalise”; when, through parental choice, black and white children attend the same early learning playgroups, reading clubs and schools. However, programme managers can only claim the costs of participation of black children and must raise funds for white participants from third parties. In effect, incentives are structured to keep children separated by race.
This dilemma is already playing out in small towns associated with renewable power production and will only become more pronounced over the next 20 years as communities become more spatially integrated.
In fact, this article was prompted by the absurdity of the DG Murray Trust having to complement the funding of early learning and reading programmes it supports in conjunction with community trusts to enable white children to participate in enrichment programmes in their own classrooms.
We also can’t help but observe that employment equity plans required by the Department of Labour also require people-sorting skills that are not unlike those of the race classification board of the apartheid era – with spurious levels of predictive specificity. For example, not only does a company with 50 employees have to report on how many coloured women with disability (versus Indian or African) are employed, but how many the company plans to employ in the future.
Strategies of black economic empowerment should be viewed as necessarily discordant instruments in an orchestra that should lead the way to a new harmony. They are uncomfortable and disruptive in that they seek to change the orchestral balance while the band plays on. They need an almost jazz-like skill of improvisation – a responsiveness to the audience, guiding us from the old to the new.
Ultimately though, they will fail in their intent if they don’t find a way of blending all the instruments together in a new composition; when they keep reverting to their original scores.
The challenge of nation-building in South Africa is to create that new balance – to recognise that psychological and economic empowerment of black people does require the death of white privilege so that we can all engage as equals. Inevitably, that involves a proactive redress of the disadvantage which is still concentrated in the lives of people who identify themselves as black. For example, the median per capita expenditure of “white households” is still 10 times that of “African households”.
If we are to confront these realities, we cannot get away from racial categories entirely, but we should apply them only where and while they are effective as agents of economic redress.
So how do we orchestrate change at this point in our history, to ensure that we do not become trapped in perpetual discordancy?
The starting point is to collapse illusory concepts and categories that can contribute little to social transformation. It is time to do away with the terms coloured, Indians and Africans as official sub-classes of blackness, in that their income and wealth distributions overlap to such an extent that “population group” categorisation holds almost no predictive power at an individual level. If you had to choose between an African or coloured or Indian person on the basis of economic need, their racial classification would not help. Conversely, whites are so concentrated in the top 10% of the income distribution that, statistically, if you were to favour a black beneficiary over a white one, you would almost certainly reduce the wealth differential between the two.
Even this assertion is arguable, as the funnelling process of the education system “selects” wealthier black students so that poorer black people may not even feature in the competition.
A diagnostic of inequality trends recently published by Statistics South Africa found that the economic divide between wealthier and poorer Africans is widening. Where possible, therefore, we should start to replace conclusions drawn from statistical probability with those based on actual fact. Disclosure of personal and family income is a more accurate measure of need, if our aim is economic empowerment of specific individuals. For example, in the provision of bursaries and recruitment of interns, it makes little sense to use race as a proxy of disadvantage when it can be measured more directly.
The same applies to broad-based black economic development schemes which are targeted at a community level. There, a strategic focus on poorer communities is a sufficiently tuned instrument for re-balancing.
Insisting on micro-analysis of beneficiaries is reminiscent of petty apartheid and has little practical value. Companies and non-government organisations should push back on government officials and rating agencies that demand a level of pointless scrutiny that is not even required by law.
We must also give greater credence to genuine strategies of empowerment that are more integrated and effective than tick-box compliance with BEE. For instance, some companies – of their own volition – are beginning to link together their socio-economic development, enterprise development and even their employment equity objectives. A child in a community they support may benefit from nutritional support, early learning and quality education programmes – and could in time also become a beneficiary of enterprise development and preferential procurement.
This type of innovation should be encouraged and rewarded as it is likely to have a more profound impact than indiscriminate BEE points-chasing. Perhaps it will add a bit more subjectivity to the rating process, but it will reduce the economic distortions created by the current bean-counting methods.
The implementation of these strategies of transformation requires considerable sensitivity and trust, which are difficult to build or even articulate in the cut-and-thrust political environment shaped by the very power imbalances it is trying to change. It is as if the orchestra is frozen in time, striving to play a new melody but constantly falling back to the same old beat. As leaders, we also seem stuck – polarising and accusatory – failing to understand that the dominant residual tunes in our heads are those of the past.
At this time, we need bold conductors – leaders across all sectors – who provide clear direction. In the absence of strong vision, petty bureaucrats will dominate, normalising the abnormal in the experience of everyday life. The quest for social justice will then become a conquest of power where status is defined in terms of asset accumulation alone. Lost in the gold-rush will be the fact that diverse backgrounds, competing ideas and different perspectives together drive innovation and human development.
Somehow, we must rewire our collective psyche to understand our interconnectedness with one another and our environment. In many ways, this necessarily compels us to think and go beyond the familiar and uncomfortable.
If we are to move forward, we must start to embody the future now, and who better to epitomise it than our children? If they are to have a normal future, their lived experience today must be as normal as possible, even as we adults try to exorcise the demons of our past. DM