Verashni Pillay: Whites truly not welcome?

"Whites not truly welcome", ran the headline. It was a cheap shot, immediately grabbing at the deep-seated insecurities of its readers.

The director general of the labour department had made a call for young white people to make a career for themselves in the civil service, our country's largest employer.

It must have been difficult not to snigger. Many white South Africans are deeply bitter about employment equity policies that have seemingly prevented them from getting jobs – never mind the fact that white women have been the largest benefactors of employment equity policies.

Such a call still tempts outrage in a country like ours, where race sensitivities run dangerously high and many white people – reasonably or unreasonably, given your stance on the issue – smart from the country's employment equity policies.

Sure enough, the mainly white trade union Solidarity, came out against the call. Dirk Groenewald, head of Solidarity’s department of labour court law, said more than an invitation was needed: "The government should rather start revising its irrational affirmative action goals as well as its application."

Almost immediately after coming into power, the ANC-led government began plotting its transformation of the country's civil service. A white paper on the subject released in 1995 sets aside a chapter on affirmative action and the need for that clunky word: "representativeness", mandating that within four years each government department "must endeavour to be at least 50% black at management level".

Four years later the ruling party's Paul Mashatile proudly told a pre-election rally that the pre-1994 agreement giving security of tenure to public servants employed by the apartheid government had fallen away.

"One of the problems we have is people whose jobs were declared redundant but whom we can't remove," he said, referencing apartheid-era administrators across government departments. "If we are able to replace them, you will see results from the public service."

Thirteen years later, those words are almost painful to hear. Replacing the white administrators did little to improve service delivery as budgets remained unspent in many provinces, dodgy contracts were handed out to contractors who were not up to the job and basic administrative and accounting capacity in government departments became incredibly weak.

Critics have condemned the government for losing skilled technocrats who happen to be the wrong colour. But, as is usually the case in our country, the issue is not black and white – though in our myopic discussions, as evinced by the comments beneath the article, it is tempting to make it so.

The ANC-led government has not unilaterally ousted white people from government's departments. A common story is told by those in the know: a small phalanx of old school technocrats, who, yes, are white, occupy background positions in certain departments and keep things running smoothly.

A survey released earlier this year found that South Africa has trained just over 2 100 black chartered accountants since the first black qualified in 1976. With a shortage of a whopping 22 000 accountants in the country, these rare individuals are snapped up quickly by the large private accounting firms.

Thus government needs the old technocrats. Besides the skills deficit, it would be madness to lose such institutional memory. So why the call for young white South Africans to take advantage of "transformative goals of employment equity", as Nkosinathi Nhleko put it?

My guess is that the old guard of efficient technocrats are maturing and retiring.

Government departments are in need of able administrators and are looking to the graduates of better schools. And that's the real indictment here. Eighteen years since we were technically able to offer a "better life for all", our education systems should render the need for racial quotas obsolete in many ways: our public schools and colleges should be able to offer us quality graduates – of all races – to staff our civil services and ensure our people get the delivery they need.

But our education crisis and its attendant corruption, which had burst on to the news agenda in recent months, have deep-reaching effects. We have robbed an entire generation of skills, and ourselves in the process.

Of course, the inability for white people to ascend through the ranks within government, without a handy struggle history to help them along the way, is also a problem. The racial mix in our government should broadly reflect the country, but this shouldn't hamper those who deserve promotion. Or are we afraid of letting white people loose, and showing up the deep weaknesses in the education and skills development offered to the majority of black people in this country?

  • Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G online. You can read her column here, and follow her on Twitter here.

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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