/ 11 July 2011

Letters to the Editor: July 8

Mail & Guardian readers weigh in on racism, privatisation, the education system and more.

Black racism is today’s problem
Eusebius McKaiser’s article “Confronting whiteness” (July 1) argues that the elephant in the room in South Africa is race. Surely not — we speak of little else. The elephant is not race but black racism, which, because it is practised by the majority, has the appearance of legitimacy. Although far from eradicated, white racism was yesterday’s problem. Black racism, which is barely acknowledged, let alone confronted, will prove a much harder nut to crack.

McKaiser’s main point, articulated on behalf of a shadowy (and presumably white) woman improbably named Samantha Vice, is that whites as inheritors of unearned benefits must lapse into silence and consider their sins. There are so many flaws in McKaiser’s argument that one scarcely knows where to begin — and space will certainly not permit me the point-by-point refutation it so richly deserves. But let me make two essential points.

The first is that it is extremely dubious to assign moral value to the accident of birth, which is what McKaiser — and purportedly Vice — does. Isn’t that essentially an underlying tenet of racism? Moral value comes in when one assesses what people do with what they inherited, be it through their gene pool, trust fund or skin colour. That is the species of uncomfortable analysis we all have to undergo as humans — and one that is long overdue for the new inheritors.

I agree with McKaiser that we lack honest discussion of race, so I hope he will forgive me if my second point uses the personal and individual to point out the innate absurdity of his and Vice’s position.

As a liberal I believe in the individual and thus always test grand theories by what they would mean to a specific person. If McKaiser expects me as a white person to adopt a position of penitent and reflective silence in the face of my whiteness, will he undertake to adopt a semi-penitent demi-silence in respect of his brownness?

After all, as a “coloured” he too benefited from the same unjust system — to the extent that he was eligible to receive a Rhodes Scholarship, potentially over the head of some equally worthy but more pigmented and thus less advantaged candidate. Indeed, there are many black voices that would deny McKaiser’s credentials even to speak on behalf of the “black” experience. I hope that, like me, he will simply refuse to keep his mouth shut.

In conclusion, I find it decidedly offensive that McKaiser should presume to speak for the humble and penitent Vice. It all smacks of the brown male baas articulating what the downtrodden white female feels unable to say. If she has something to say, empower her to say it. After all, as long as a portion of the population is silent because it has been made to feel inferior, not worthy to speak, we remain trapped in a racist society. — James van den Heever, Johannesburg

Academic Samantha Vice has caused a storm of controversy with her thoughts on white shame in South Africa. Read the reactions. View our special report.

Privatisation and the business of private profit
We pay a heavy price for our short memories. No less astonishing than the simplistic praise of privatisation by Zambia’s minister of mines is that it seems to have gone unchallenged (“Inside ANC nationalisation debate“, Business, July 1).

The core of the history Zambia’s minister of mines seeks to keep buried is as follows.

As part of a structural adjustment programme imposed on Zambia by the International Monetary Fund in the late 1990s (as it now seeks to do in Greece and elsewhere), Zambia was forced to privatise its copper mines. Anglo American thus became the owner of Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM), which produced 70% of Zambia’s copper.

The privatisation resulted in:

  • Huge retrenchments in a country already plagued by unemployment;
  • Aggravation of the debt burden the privatisation was supposed to ease (because the World Bank made a further loan available to Zambia to finance the retrenchments);
  • Large cutbacks in education and healthcare (because Anglo American refused to continue ZCCM’s payment for most social services on the Copperbelt and for Zambia’s spending on health).

Moreover, Britain, having made the privatisation a condition of its promised £20-million loan, withheld the loan by making new preconditions.

In an even greater abuse of power, Anglo American changed its mind shortly after buying ZCCM. The slump in world copper prices made ZCCM insufficiently profitable. ZCCM, sold to Anglo at a bargain price, had to be sold again, this time for even less and with more Zambian government incentives to find a buyer.

Thus, besides a low rate of tax, the mines (which use 80% of Zambia’s electricity), were guaranteed a fixed price of electricity, at 50% below actual cost, and for an extended period. A few years later the price of copper on the world market began its sharp increase but Zambia was still obliged to provide subsidised electricity to the then highly profitable mines.

No private-sector magic is behind these now profitable mines. The huge increase in the price of copper is the source of the mining revenues praised by Zambia’s minister. Zambia has no control whatsoever over the ephemeral price of its major resource. China largely exercises that control. Yet demand for copper rests on the unsustainable growth of China and the transnational corporations that feast off it.

The history of Zambia’s enforced mining privatisation merits excavating. Not the least of the buried treasure is the gem that privatisation exists primarily to maximise private profit. — Jeff Rudin

It’s not just a crisis; it’s a violation of human rights
Your heading reads “The damage our schools do to children“, with above it the strap “Education crisis” (July 1). This is no longer a crisis — it is a human rights issue. I am in contact with various orphan-care projects in underresourced areas in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape and I have looked at many pages of schoolwork shown to me by children benefiting from the programmes.

It is painfully apparent that our schoolchildren are being deprived of learning. Many children spend an entire school day copying complex English texts from the board, a text the teacher has copied from a textbook.

The pupils do not understand a word of what they have written down and teachers do not have the background training to explain the content. Learners are not allowed to ask questions. Teachers seem to be aware that they are inadequately equipped, but they do not know who to turn to.

The failure of our school education in poor communities is a crime against our South African children. It is a structural sin in which every educator is entangled and we cannot point fingers at individuals. Yet we must ask the question: Who are the advocates of our children? — Reverend Renate Cochrane, Hout Bay

Has conservation become commercialisation?
I refer to your article: “Kruger row becomes ‘racist game’” (July 1). How is it possible for someone who holds the ideas of David Mabunda to be in charge of our national parks? How can a person who sees “visiting the Kruger [National Park] for a nature experience” as “old-fashioned and elitist” be the chief executive of SANParks? Who is really old-fashioned?

Does South Africa, on the whole, still have such a rural view of the environment that we see any development as positive and conservation as primitive and wasteful? By focusing on the racial conflict, the real issue, namely the park itself, is ignored.

Somehow national parks are no longer about conservation, but about commercialisation and “progress”. Nature has no voice in this. The sheer size of the envisioned project, an addition of 400 rooms, and the fact that the environmental-impact assessment was commissioned months after the tender was awarded, shows how little worth is attached to it.

The Kruger National Park already has eight “Golden Kudus”, luxury lodges marketed for “comfort and indulgence”. Why does Mabunda think that adding more of the same, only on a larger scale, would attract the “black diamonds” the facilities are aimed at? If he is trying to attract people to nature, is his method then not contradictory to the nature experience?

Another important reason for the construction of these facilities is the job opportunities it will provide for people living in the area surrounding the park. But are 200 jobs in a community of three million really worth the destruction to the park? Conservation has intrinsic value; it is not only of value to the tourism industry or job creation.

National parks exist because people have become aware of the effects of human proliferation and greed and of human exploitation of the environment. We should therefore be cautious about implementing any project that uses a protected area for job creation and upliftment, because it could easily place us back in square one — with the need for a new park. — Elsabé Boshoff, Stellenbosch

OBE: Don’t blame Asmal
Since Kader Asmal’s death was announced, I have noticed with irritation and disgust misinformed writers and callers to radio stations, including a few radio presenters, falsely accusing him of introducing “detrimental” outcomes-based education (OBE) to South Africa.

The truth is that OBE was introduced in 1997 by the then minister of education, Sibusiso Bengu. At that time (1994-1999), Asmal was minister of water affairs.

Mario Rocha wrote to the Mail & Guardian (Letters, July 1), saying: “All I know about Asmal is the legacy of outcomes basic [sic] education, which left our country with semi-literate youth.” Since this is untrue of Asmal, Rocha knows nothing about him. In these past weeks we have heard a lot of inspiring things about Asmal. I am wondering why this Rocha fellow, who by his own admission knows nothing about Asmal, felt the necessity to expose his ignorance while tarnishing Asmal’s memory instead of accepting what we are told by those who knew Asmal.

I also wish the M&G had not contributed to the perpetuation of this lie by printing Rocha’s letter. I know the history of education in South Africa fairly well and feel the need to correct the distortion. — Vuyelwa, Pretoria

Popcorn analysis
Endearingly, Francis Fukuyama (“The evolution of democracy“, July 1) confesses that the “one thing” he is “good at doing is writing books”. He is. He is also good at selling them. Sadly, he is not very good at being right in them. He was hilariously wrong in The End of History.

His key failure is to see history in terms of linear meta-narratives. Other than his undeniable gifts as a phrase-maker, why is he read? You won’t pick up anything from him about the United States’s foreign policy that you won’t pick from watching Charlie Wilson’s War. And that comes with popcorn. — Sandra Swart, Stellenbosch

Climate contradictions
After living for nine years in Australia, the home of Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited (very limited), it’s a pleasure to be back in South Africa, where I can read a real independent newspaper.

Last week I pulled out the Greening the Future Awards section, headlined “Tackling climate change head on” and thought, as they do in Oz, “Good on you.” Then I saw the article behind the pull-out, in the business section, on Transnet’s coal-export performance, with the clear implication that greater coal exports would be a good thing. You didn’t have to juxtapose such a stark contradiction to make me feel at home. I don’t actually like the Murdoch media. — Philip Machanick, Grahamstown