/ 19 August 2005

I am an AA candidate and proud of it

I have no illusion about my appointment as Pension Funds Adjudicator. I am quite certain that even with the extensive legal experience I have in income tax law, pension law and constitutional law (among other numerous talents), the chances of my appointment under the previous National Party government (and I am ordinarily a consummate optimist) would have been firmly quashed by the colour of my skin.

I think affirmative action (AA) is being bastardised by persons who — either owing to a genuine mis- understanding of the concept or a misperception by sheer design — feel threatened by it.

I am concerned, not so much about the opportunities that I have missed to amass heaps of wealth as there is a chance I may still do that; what angers me is that opponents of AA choose to ignore the untold damage that Dr Hendrik Verwoerd and his cronies in the NP (and, of course, the millions of white people who kept propping up the NP with both vote and pelf) caused to black people in denying us the one indispensable tool with which to fend for ourselves — quality education. For that, I shall never forgive the NP.

To destroy a nation, you need not starve it to death as some nation states have done to ethnic minorities. To destroy a nation, you need not denigrate its religious beliefs. To destroy a nation, you need not suppress its language as the English did Afrikaans. Oh no! If you want to destroy a nation, deny it quality education as the NP did black South Africans.

The person I am today is not the better person I know I would have been if it had not been for the NP’s social engineering policies.

Millions of black South Africans would not be roaming the streets unemployed and not knowing which way to turn. Countless black South African men would not have died crowded deaths in the coal and gold mines of Johannesburg and each of their families paid a pittance in so-called compensation because they were thought not to know any better.

Scores of South African black women (like my beautiful and highly intelligent mother, who had to leave school after obtaining a junior certificate with distinction, beating well over 90% of white students in the process) would not have found themselves turning the Master’s bed, cleaning the Madam’s lavatory and raising their disrespectful and ungrateful yobs for a living.

Hell, the NP and all who kept it in power wasted people like Oliver Tambo (one of the brightest persons on this Earth who featured in the top 5% in his matric year, writing the same examinations as white people before the NP put a stop to that), who could have led this country to unimaginable prosperity.

AA does not derive its definition from the competence (or otherwise) of its beneficiary. That Transnet chief executive Maria Ramos (as a woman) is doing an excellent job does not, in my respectful view, change the fact that she has been given an opportunity to excel, which she would not have been given by the NP government. Such opportunities are what is required to remedy the damage caused to black people and women by past racist policies.

That Vuyani Ngalwana is thought to be performing marginally better than was expected of him does not change the fact that he is a beneficiary of this government’s AA policy. Contrastingly, that Ngalwana — having been appointed on merit — is demonstrably shoddy at his job does not make him an AA appointment. It makes him an incompetent lout. Period.

Appointment on merit, on the one hand, and appointment by affirmative action on the other, are not mutually exclusive. The incompetence of a black person (or woman) is no different from that of a white man. When a white man is incompetent, he should (assuming he had been given all the tools with which to do the job) be fired. When a black person is incompetent, why should he or she simply be labelled an AA appointment and then be left alone as if that were to be expected? Incompetence is incompetence is incompetence. It knows no race. It knows no gender.

Those successful black people who ”eschew the label” (as Ferial Haffajee suggested last week) are, in my respectful view, short-sighted. A countless number of black lives have been lost so that the opportunities for which affirmative action provides can be realised. It is thus ungratefulness of the highest order for those successful products of AA then to view with disdain the very ladder that has carried them to those dizzy heights, and for which so much black blood has been spilt. This is a label to wear proudly because without it they would, in all likelihood, not be where they are today.

There would have been no Mvela-phanda under the NP government. Notwithstanding the abundance of high quality black legal minds, there would have been no black Supreme Court of Appeal judge or Constitutional Court judge. There would have been no black newspaper editor. There would have been no black SABC group chief executive. There would have been no regular black rugby or cricket players in the national squad. Hell, there would have been no black talent determining our country’s monetary and fiscal policy.

That the black people in these positions are there demonstrates not that this government is intent on feeding us mediocrity; it rather demonstrates its commitment to remedying an anomaly where highly competent people played second fiddle to persons of lesser ability by reason solely of the colour of their skin.

I, Vuyani Ngalwana, want the whole world to know that I am an AA appointment, not because I am otherwise incompetent and would not cut it when competing for the same job with white persons of similar experience. When I was in practice, I argued cases almost exclusively against white counsel (senior and junior) and had a success rate of over 90%.

I am an AA appointment because without it I (like Steve Biko and scores of other young and bright black people) would never have had the opportunity to realise what remains of my potential. Without it, thousands of South Africans (black and white) would continue to lose their hard-earned retirement savings to life companies in mysterious charges; without it, the retirement industry would not now be changing its business ways for the better. I make no apology to anyone for being an AA appointment because without it I would probably be roaming the streets of Gugulethu wondering what was wrong with this country.