Why are none of the ministers appointed to key economic portfolios in Zuma’s Cabinet black? This question from ANC Youth League president Julius Malema has caused the national debate on race to flare up yet again.
The ANC leadership, quoting the party’s nonracial stance, dismissed the view as ‘marginalâ€.
‘Obviously there are these feelings in society, so it’s no wonder it came up in the ANC,â€ said national working committee member Pallo Jordan. ‘But it is a marginal view, it is not the majority.â€
Yet, on the heels of Malema’s outburst, Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu argued that the issue should be taken more seriously, later calling for a national debate on race. Then President Jacob Zuma put his foot down.
There is no need for a debate, he told the nation, despite promising potential ANC voters that thorny issues could be ‘debatedâ€ if necessary. The president insisted that it would just take the country backwards.
But his speech to the Cosatu congress this week touched on an issue that has been at the heart of the new race debate: the belief that there is a conspiracy against black executives in the private sector. Without spelling out how, he said government would have to take this into account in the implementation of affirmative action.
The ANC’s race relations were never clear-cut. Many whites had been active in the South African ÂCommunist Party, which had a long history of nonracialism. White members of the Communist Party had dedicated their lives to ANC work; journalist Ruth First was given the task of writing up the Âhistory of the movement. But it was only in 1969 that whites were allowed to be in the party.
Still, the influence of the Black ÂConsciousness movement compelled the ANC leadership to take cognisance of the influence of whites in key positions. They wanted to avoid letting them take control of the party — even though the communists were the conduit for the party’s support from the Soviet Union. The gap came when the USSR weakened significantly and the influence of the communists in the party also started to wane.
At the time of liberation in 1994, some still saw the number of white people in the party, albeit never in the top six leadership positions, as a source of concern.
‘It was felt that people like Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils and Jeremy Cronin should not be seen as being intellectually superior to black people in the ANC,â€ said one ANC cadre, who asked not to be named.
The Mandela era of reconciliation did not sit well with everyone in the party. Some felt that Madiba bent over backwards to accommodate whites with his appointment of former president FW de Klerk to his Cabinet.
The tide changed when Thabo Mbeki took the reins. He put an end to the Âgratuitous accommodation of whites and embarked on a rigorous campaign to right the wrongs of the past through black economic empowerment and affirmative action. He made his famed ‘I am an Africanâ€ speech and sparred with politicians and social commentators about race.
‘I, for my part, will not keep quiet while others whose minds have been corrupted by the disease of racism, accuse us, the black people of South Africa, Africa and the world, as being, by virtue of our Africanness and skin colour — lazy, liars, foul-smelling, diseased, corrupt, violent, amoral, sexually depraved, animalistic, savage — and rapist,â€ he wrote in his ANC Âcolumn. He surrounded himself with the country’s best brains: legal adviser Mojanku Gumbi and policy chief Joel Netshitenzhe; he co-opted Azapo leader Mosibudi Mangena to Cabinet.
‘Back then, blacks were running the country,â€ a Mbeki confidant said.
Yet in 2004 Mbeki still lamented that race was not talked about enough. ‘I … pray that sooner rather than later, all of us, South Africans of all races, will dare to drag racism … into the arena of public discussion,â€ he wrote.
Zuma has appointed Trevor Manuel, Pravin Gordhan, Barbara Hogan, Ebrahim Ebrahim, Ebrahim Patel and Jeremy Cronin to his executive, reviving old fears.
‘Now we are seeing a reversal,â€ said the Mbeki confidant. ‘People like [SACP deputy secretary Jeremy] Cronin have become the brains in the ANC.â€ But, he said, the leadership of the ANC will always be in black hands.
‘That is the primacy of African leadership. The question is, do we allow black people to run the ANC or do we allow the minorities to run the party?â€
Black economic empowerment was one of Mbeki’s key initiatives, but one of the biggest critics of this policy is his brother, public commentator and businessman Moeletsi Mbeki.
‘Big business uses BEE to entrench black nationalism. They need this to defeat socialism. If they promote the race card, it protects them from the nationalisation of their assets,â€ said Mbeki.
BEE entrenches the division between race groups, he said, because the cake that needs to be shared is small and does not grow, meaning fewer people get a piece of the pie.
‘Initially it was everyone who couldn’t vote for the National Assembly during apartheid who were previously disadvantaged. Now the emphasis is on Africans in particular,â€ said Mbeki.
He pointed to the parastatals and government departments, the majority of which are headed by Africans. ‘[Others] only appear when you have a crisis, like Maria Ramos, who came in when Transnet was in big trouble.â€
Mbeki said the ANC is using race as a political tool to ensure its mass Âsupport: ‘The ANC is faced with a revolt at the bottom and it is about inequality. And how do you explain to those people protesting what causes the inequality? You explain they are left behind because they are discriminated against by whites.â€
Jordan rejected this argument outright. ‘We did not invent race. It wasn’t me who imposed the Group Areas Act … It continues to be an issue, and we will reverse that.â€
In Zuma’s quest to be the true Âfollower of Madiba, he rejected a debate on the matter.
‘There was a feeling that during Mbeki’s time there was too much emphasis on race that alienated many people and created cracks in what Mandela started,â€ his spokesÂperson, Zizi Kodwa, said.
Zuma said bean-counting of the numbers of Africans could create endless dilemmas.
‘If you start doing that then you must not stop there. We have avoided that in the past because you may then have to ask how many Vendas, Sothos are in your structure,â€ Kodwa said.
So, while Malema’s comments might have been dismissed by the ANC leadership, they have forced the party to reassess and re-affirm its nonracial stance. Fifteen years after democracy it has become increasingly difficult to explain why the situation for black people has not changed significantly.
Zuma will have to work hard to ensure that the redressing of the past heals race relations for South Africans in general — and the disadvantaged in particular.
Let’s keep the conversation going
There is a debate raging right now from Luthuli House to the Union Buildings and across millions of dinner tables about how, and whether, South Africans should discuss race, writes Nic Dawes. It is, in many ways, an argument utterly beside the point: we not only talk constantly about race — how much it matters, or doesn’t; its past and future — race speaks through all our efforts to make sense of a bewildering transition and a fractured society.
So there can be no question of whether we should ‘confront the race issueâ€ or let it lie. Race confronts us and race-talk is unavoidable. The real question is how to talk race. It is part of our national tragedy that we do so almost entirely in the crudest way imaginable.
Easy race-talk — the slur, the reaction, the accusation and the protestation of innocence — is all around us and it serves principally to confirm us in the comfortable identity ghettos that we have learned to love.
But there is another way to talk about race, a way that interrogates its power, recognises the scale of injuries inflicted and understands, without accepting, the limits it imposes and the possibilities it grants. This way is not easy. On the contrary, it is painful and unpleasant, it sets our teeth and our minds on edge; it makes us feel like aliens in our own country. It is complicated, too, and hard to shout from the rooftops. Which is just what we need. We are trying, after all, to find our way to a different place.
It is this kind of conversation we are trying to provoke with this week’s special issue — full of pain and discomfort, but shot through with flashes of hope and humour. It represents a starting point, or a set of starting points.
Please help us to keep the conversation going.