The appointment of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister deals another blow to the perception that some races are more capable than others.
When I was 16 years old, I decided I was in need of some spare cash and applied for a weekend job at a large supermarket.
It was my first job interview, so imagine my surprise when the manager took one look at me and pronounced: “You’re Indian! You’re hired.”
My white friend who also applied didn’t get that treatment. Neither did my black colleagues.
Apparently Indian staff members had a reputation for being good with money and were rarely short on the tills, thanks to the common error of miscounting cash and handing back the wrong change to customers.
Funnily enough, this proved to be stubbornly true. A list of cashier names was posted up every day with the amount one was under or over by. Zero meant a balanced till and full marks. The Indian staff members did tend to have a better record. And the ones who kept getting it wrong were usually made packers to keep them out of trouble.
So was it some innate Indian-ness that made us so good? Or was it the amount of confidence that a small amount of initial success instilled within us, which spurred us on to greater success?
Human beings are sensitive creatures. Tell us we’ll succeed and we’ll most likely do so. On the other hand, create the perception that somehow we’re not right for a particular task and we’ll probably trip ourselves up and fail if we try.
My white friend and I were getting the same education and had a reasonably similar background. But she resorted to being a packer after a few errors on the tills spooked her.
So what does any of this have to do with our new finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene?
A number of international publications have made a big deal of the fact that Nene is our first black financial minister. Black, as it is understood here, is not a broader catch-all term that includes coloureds and Indians, such as his respected predecessors, Trevor Manuel and Pravin Gordhan.
Nene’s appointment is a victory for a number of African nationalists who have been critical of the fact that there was not a single black minister within key financial ministries.
Previously, Tito Mboweni did an excellent job as Reserve Bank governor. But within the previous Cabinet, the national planning commission was led by Manuel, and economic development by Ebrahim Patel. It’s worth noting that the economic cluster itself is made up of over a dozen key ministries with plenty of talented black people at the helm in the past and present. But the lack of a black minister of finance has been a bugbear for many in the ANC for a while.
“When it comes to Africans, it’s got to reflect in all sectors of the economy. That’s not the case at the moment,” one member of the ANC national executive committee told the Mail & Guardian once. “We are not in charge of what the communists call the commanding heights of the economy.”
But should we bow to the demands of African nationalists that colour matters over merit every time?
Not quite. It’s important for that particular position to be held by a black person for the first time because perception matters.
Don’t believe me? Think back to when Nene first made the news – for the wrong reason. A clip of him falling off a broken chair during an SABC interview went viral in 2008. It was particularly comic as he was “chair” of the financial portfolio committee in Parliament at the time.
But there was something ugly that happened as the video gained traction. A number of comments began appearing accusing him of being a “fat slob”, lazy and incompetent. And there were hundreds that referenced his race. These have all since been flagged and deleted but I covered the story at the time at News24 and was shocked at the vitriol directed at the man in the comments I saw before they were moderated. The thinking seemed to be: “He’s black and in the ANC. He must be useless.”
Nene is a talented man with the right head and experience for his new position. After chairing the financial portfolio committee in Parliament, he served as a deputy under both Gordhan and Manuel, and analysts commenting on the new Cabinet were generally pleased with the choice.
His appointment is particularly gratifying because we can also safely say he was the best person for the job regardless of colour.
But it matters because we can deal another blow to that lingering perception I came up against as a teenager, that certain people are capable – or not – based on their appearance.
I had a chat with political commentator and gender activist Sisonke Msimang last week about the poor gender parity of the new provincial cabinets. Msimang said it was important to have women in positions of power, not just to advance other women but also to show that it was possible for women to hold those positions.
“There’s this old joke: a child was born in the era of Margaret Thatcher. When John Major took over as prime minister of England, she said: ‘I didn’t know men could be prime minister!’ ... It’s important for women to be in power to build a generation of kids who see that either [scenario] is normal.”
The same is true for black people and the finance ministry. Congratulations, Minister Nene.