Verashni Pillay’s recent Mail & Guardian online article, Six things white people have that black people don’t, hasn’t really brought us closer to solving racial polarisation in South Africa.
Judging by the comments made by those who support – and those who are opposed to the sentiments raised – I believe that her column has slightly contributed to a deteriorating state of social cohesion in South Africa.
As a white South African and a senior official at an organisation that shares some (although not all) of the views that anger Pillay, I couldn’t help but feel offended by her very simplistic approach.
The article is virtually devoid of any factual basis and the author even concedes that she is using “broad strokes” to generalise the problem. Although I believe Pillay to be an excellent journalist, her simplistic take on history and current affairs has left her with an oversimplified perspective devoid of much-needed nuance.
But the biggest problem I have is not so much with her obvious frustration with white people, but rather with the fact that this frustration is misdirected.
Black South Africans are indeed having a hard time getting by. The real problem is, however, not the attitude of white people, but the fact that the South African government has largely deserted them.
Here are seven points that illustrate this reality:
1. The education system is dysfunctional. In 2009 Angie Motshekga, then MEC for education in Gauteng, notoriously abandoned her post to campaign for Jacob Zuma’s presidency. When confronted, she responded that her political work at the ANC was more important than her education work. Instead of being disciplined, she was promoted to become the minister of basic education.
Since then, our president has repeatedly praised her and her department, despite the fact that in recent years on average only about a third of all South African pupils were able to finish matric in the prescribed 12 years.
It is no secret that black children suffer more when it comes to education, because the most dysfunctional schools are those in the townships. Teachers in historically black state schools work only three-and-a-half hours on average a day, about half of the number of hours that teachers in the former Model C schools put in. Motshekga has admitted that about 80% of South African schools are dysfunctional.
2. Affirmative action is not only illegal in terms of international law, which requires a sunset clause [that requires it to be applicable for a finite period or be phased out], but is also not beneficial to the majority of black South Africans, who still live in abject poverty.
The problem is that educating and empowering people to be able to compete on an equal basis has been completely neglected in favour of the obscure principle of “representivity”, which basically implies that the goal of equality would be achieved once the labour market is representative of the population demographic, regardless of whether those black employees were only put there because of their race. This is an obvious and narrow-minded attempt to quick-fix the equality crisis on a formal level, while substantive equality is thrown out the back door.
3. South Africa now has one service delivery protest roughly every second day. In some cases, poor service delivery has even resulted in the deaths of township residents, as was the case in Bloemhof, where at least three babies died after contracting waterborne diseases as a result of contaminated drinking water.
This prompted Dr Frans Cronje, chief executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), to write that these babies were killed as a result of incompetence caused by unmerited affirmative action appointments.
4. The result of ineffective government is that the wealthy are increasingly privatising the things that the government should have been doing in the first place – and a strong argument has been made that affirmative action is to blame.
In 1986 about 95% of all hospital beds in South Africa (117 842 of 123 967) were in public hospitals. By 2013 the total number of hospital beds had declined to 84 920, and the number of beds in private hospitals had increased to 37 869. If this trend continues, the amount of beds in private hospitals will soon surpass those in the public sector.
The SAIRR has found that, while South Africa has seen a 9% decline in the amount of public schools between the years 2000 and 2010, during the same decade, the number of private schools increased by 44%.
Furthermore, with more than 9 000 private security firms and 400 000 registered active private security guards (more than the South African police and army combined), the private security industry in South Africa is the largest in the world. Needless to say, access to private hospitals, schools and security services is expensive and is generally inaccessible to the majority of black South Africans who have to suffer under a deteriorating public sector.
5. Another unique problem that black South Africans face is the fact that they are often not given the benefit of the doubt. The strong push to include black South Africans regardless of merit, has left many white people with suspicion towards black South Africans who have achieved success.
House committees at university residences are often a breeding ground for racial friction, to name but one example. Many universities enforce racial quotas on house committees, resulting in a tragic situation where deserving black leaders who would have been voted in are often disregarded as undeserving recipients of a quota system and who have simply been put there to fill the quota. The same goes for sport and employment policies.
6. Black South Africans are also kept in the cycle of poverty and unemployment by a paralysing social grant system. About 16-million South Africans (roughly a third of the population) are receiving social grants, costing the country more than R109-billion in the 2013-2014 financial year alone.
The tragic irony is that, instead of being embarrassed about this, it is a figure that the South African government is proud of. During the last national election, it was even boasted on billboards as an illustration of the alleged effectiveness of the government.
Lavish spending on social grants, combined with our disastrous education system, is only serving to keep these South Africans in the cycle of poverty and unemployment. Without a clear paradigm shift, the situation will only worsen.
7. Contrary to popular (or should I say populist) belief, poor South Africans will be hit severely by the scourge against South African farmers. Despite the fact that South African commercial farmers are being murdered at a rate of about 134 per 100 000 per year (as opposed to the South African murder rate of 32 per 100 000 per year), the South African government is adamantly refusing to prioritise this crime phenomenon.
Since the ANC’s ascent to power, the number of commercial farmers in South Africa has dropped from close to 60 000 to close to 35 000. Furthermore, the push for aggressive land reform will also be to the detriment of the poor, as Minister of Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti has acknowledged that some 90% of farms redistributed to South Africa’s black population from white farmers are not productive.
Despite this, the South African government is now putting pressure on the agricultural sector to create an impossible one million jobs by 2030. If the pressure on the agricultural sector results in an increase in food prices, the poor will once again be hit the hardest.
While the organisation that I represent has no intention of entering party politics, I believe that the only sustainable solution for black South Africans would be either to keep the party that they have put in power accountable, or to get them out.
In the meantime, suggesting that the problem for black South Africans is seated in the attitude of white people, is grossly misleading and irresponsible.
Ernst Roets is the deputy chief executive of AfriForum. Tweet him @ernstroets.