South Africa’s chief bugbear, racism, is in sharp focus once more. Some whites respond to it either timidly or, condescendingly in its defence, while some blacks answer with fury or disdainful acquiescence. Rational, unifying and rousing voices of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s rainbow nation are a few and far between. Even the seismic racial relations events unfolding across the United States and many parts of the world have only elicited a murmur from our political and business leaders.
These varied reactions to this complex racism problem reminded me of an informal experiment I have been conducting for some time. A few years ago, just before boarding a plane out of OR Tambo International Airport, I bought a book by veteran journalist Ferial Haffajee. It was the tantalising title, What if there were no whites in South Africa, that drew my attention.
While queuing for the security check, I was paging through my new purchase and could not help but notice the strange and curious looks I was getting from fellow passengers. Moments later, as I was picking up the book after going through the metal detector, a tall, burly white man with a strong Afrikaans accent accosted me.
“I do not have land you know. I have worked extremely hard for everything I have,” he said. I was slightly taken aback. All I could do was smile, before replying: “Me too,” because clearly the title of the book had offended him.
“I do not have a foreign passport. I am committed to this country,” he added as he walked away.
His reaction to the book and many similar others gave me an idea. I got the title printed on a T-shirt, which I wore occasionally just to gauge people’s reactions. The feedback I got from most white people was no different from the man who looked like a Springbok rugby lock.
Other whites smiled bashfully, not wanting to offend me. From some blacks, it was unprintable anti-white expletives or counsel to stop doing something so unnecessary. Why bother yourself with white people? Chill.
These responses demonstrated that there are many white people who regard a black government and measures such as BEE as a threat to their livelihood and an affront to their culture. They therefore financially or morally support openly racist organisations such as Afriforum and Solidariteit as well as the establishment of the Afrikaner-only town, Orania.
Gauteng MEC of Education Panyaza Lesufi wants Orania to fall. He shared Orania’s currency on social media this week and his Facebook and Twitter accounts were flooded with angry responses, mainly from black people. Incidentally, well-known economist Dawie Roodt is spearheading Orania’s currency digitisation project.
Other whites, who support non-racialism and efforts to deracialise the economy, are largely quiet. Some of them could be worried about being labelled as k****rboeties (a pejorative apartheid label for whites who were sympathetic and treated blacks humanely) and shunned.
Ora, as Orania’s currency is known, is a perfect example of how white businesses support each other, often to the exclusion of blacks. Ora is used to encourage the circulation of money among the racist town’s residents.
Sometimes racism is subtle, and the crime is disguised as an issue of incompetency. One area where this is rife is in sports, which is often touted as a unifier. Minister of Sports, Nathi Mthethwa, recently berated Cricket SA for filling key positions with whites.
Interestingly, such a move was ostensibly supported by sponsors, Momentum, which demanded the appointment of people with “relevant experience”. Then emerges former Proteas captain Graeme Smith as director of cricket. Smith has a long relationship with Momentum, including being an employee since 2014.
Smith wasted no time appointing his friends and former co-players, Mark Boucher as a coach, Jacques Kallis as a batting consultant. They are all competent fellows, aren’t they? Therefore, there is no problem. Blacks who are brought into the fold are often made to feel incompetent because they are so-called quota players or administrators. This is a form of social Darwinism where whites are deemed naturally competent.
There is a similar outcry about tennis South Africa, which remains lily-white. Senior positions at the federation level and across its provincial structures are occupied by whites. Growthpoint Properties is the headline sponsor of this largely untransformed institution.
When will it end?
As for black anger against racism, we need more of it, especially from the middle class. It must be directed at untransformed white corporates and the government for failing to ensure redress initiatives such as BEE are properly implemented.
Mandela and Tutu’s rainbow nation dream has found expression in the Constitution and BEE and Employment Equity legislation. Although a lot has changed, for an overwhelming majority of black South Africans, the rainbow nation is but a dream. They are unemployed and still live in poverty and squalor.
It is a huge disappointment that those who run the government, led by black people, have become pot-bellied collaborators with white capital to continue the economic racism of apartheid. When you call white business to account for its failures, you are likely to get a response from a wealthy black person.
The majority of medium to large businesses are white-owned and managed. Most are members of Business Unity South Africa (Busa). Interestingly, Busa is led mostly by black people. Small wonder the Black Business Council broke away from Busa as it felt it did not adequately represent its interests.
Disappointingly, BEE is hamstrung by internal strife with the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Nafcoc), which is also caught up in decades-long factional battles. They are fighting over crumbs.
The solution is for those who want an economically non-racial and equal society to unite, boldly and loudly call out both whites and blacks who collaborate to entrench economic racism.
Also, entrepreneurship should be made compulsory and encouraged. Apartheid economic policies ensured that the value chain is in white hands. Consequently, a black business can’t operate without dependence on white business for products and services. White business thrives on black customers and government procurement. The residue of apartheid cannot be broken without first fixing this.
Lastly, the Covid-19 Solidarity Fund should be maintained after the pandemic and used to fund initiatives aimed at economic redress.
Solomon Makgale is an independent communications consultant