/ 20 October 2022

Dis-Chem debacle: Is transformation in SA regressing?

Graphic Tl Zama Dischem Website2 1200px

The preamble to our Constitution says we “believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity” and that we adopted it in 1996 with the intention to “heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights”. 

Our Constitution was approved by the constitutional court on 4  December 1996. Twenty days later, on what should have been a typical busy Christmas eve, two bombs exploded in Worcester, a quiet town between towering mountains in the Western Cape, turning a joyous time of the year into a nightmare. 

Juanita April, Sydney Jalile, Xolani Matshoba, Andile Matshoba and Sweetness Busakwe lost their lives and about 70 others were wounded. 

Those responsible were Koper Myburgh, Cliff Barnard, Jan van der Westhuizen and Stefaans Coetzee, members of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) and believers in the Israel Vision ideology, grounded in the idea that only white people with Western European bloodlines could be “God’s children”. 

It was reported that the four white supremacists even placed a bomb right under a Christmas tree in a Shoprite store that was mainly frequented by the largely poorer black and coloured population. This was intended to kill and injure as many people as possible.

As a society recovers from a violent history, it can be easy to lose sight of the many difficulties it faces in the hope of finding resolution, restoration and peace. The tragic events in Worcester represented the nation’s worst fears — that the most extreme sections of our society would resist change through the most violent means possible. 

It’s been a quarter of a century since the adoption of our Constitution and the bombs in Worcester, yet disparities of race, gender and socioeconomic status still persist. Our greatest fears of an all-out race war did not come to fruition but the right of equality is yet to be realised.

A significant number of black people still do not have the same opportunities as other South Africans because part of our heritage is an economic and opportunity gap that is based on race. Black people are not substantively equal to the country’s white population.

Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa holds up a copy of the country’s new constitution freshly signed by President Nelson Mandela in Sharpville 10 December 1996. In 1960, this otherwise unremarkable township of Johannesburg was the scene of an apartheid police massacre of 69 unarmed black civil rights protesters. (Photo by ADIL BRADLOW / AFP)

Although most people know this, every attempt to right the wrongs of the past, as required by the Constitution, is met with extraordinary resistance. 

Earlier this week, Dis-Chem’s board sought to distance itself from the “tone and content” of its chief executive’s letter that put a moratorium on hiring white people, which caused “offence and distress” among its staff members and customers. 

In the original letter, Ivan Saltzman is clear about what the problem is at Dis-Chem — the ratio of black and white employees, particularly at managerial and senior management levels, puts the company at risk of a fine of 10% of turnover. 

Saltzman is not an activist; he’s not progressive; he is protecting shareholder value. 

But to Dis-Chem’s board, the dignity of unrepresentative employees and customers is more important than, as advocate Ben Cronin tweeted, “the quiet fact that every single one of [Dis-Chem’s] executive directors is white and male”.

It is crucial that a society with a past such as South Africa’s implement reforms that address inequality. The broad-based black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) policy, which was introduced in 2007 as simply black economic empowerment (BEE), sought to do exactly that. 

Scorecards are used to evaluate the effectiveness of organisational transformation across all sectors of the economy. 

Saltzman found himself sending a strongly worded internal memo to his management because the policy forced him to do it. The policy has been rightly criticised by policy practitioners, unionists and activists for failing to change the racial makeup of the economy. 

Many have shown that it has

also helped a small black elite blend in with the wealthy white capitalist elite who were protected post-apartheid. 

The argument is that by largely maintaining the structure of the economy that favours white, able-bodied men, the ANC has perpetuated the apartheid socioeconomic status. The B-BBEE policy maintains the “power dynamic” that existed during apartheid and rewards a narrow few previously disadvantaged people, who then protect their new status. 

One of the reasons the still largely oppressed black majority finds itself having to advocate for such a weak policy tool is that in the transition to the new South Africa, events such as the Worcester bomb made us see the regressive racist as an extremist AWB member, thus allowing a privileged section of society to wield their power over millions of oppressed people. 

There’s no nice way to tell one’s subordinates that their refusal to implement the B-BBEE policy hurts their company’s and their own long-term prospects. 

There’s no nice way for an executive to tell subordinates that by protecting their privilege, they are protecting a deeply exclusionary economic system. 

Tackling racism head-on and working to abolish institutionalised racism and discrimination requires more than just the B-BBEE policy. 

It requires more than better policies. It requires resolve and honesty. We need to be able to say uncomfortable things to each other, to our peers, as much as we are honest to the state. 

Over the past two decades, we have left the hard conversation to a state that has increasingly become preoccupied with ANC politics and power struggles. Without a strong ANC to champion restitution, it has become okay to treat the post-1994 project as nothing more than populist politics. 

Our neglect of the true project of post-apartheid Africa has created space for the right-wing narrative in the US and Europe to ooze into our own public discourse and question the very things that we once knew to be true — that pre-1994 South Africa was a racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic and so forth society and this structure exists to this day.

The problem with the slow progress in restoring South Africa is that once it breaks, we will not have a second chance to fix it. 

A Business Day article was headlined “Dis-Chem threatened with court action over racist hiring policy”. The word “racist” was not in inverted commas. This is one of the many little ways in which we move from a shared belief that South Africa is on a journey of restitution to calling any action that seeks to correct injustice “racist”. 

“Merit” is a red herring used by those who do not want to lose their privilege in an economy with a conservative unemployment rate of 33.9%. 

In my favourite George Orwell essay on politics and language, he writes: “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilisation is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. 

“It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

“Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.”

The growing tendency of allowing language that compares restitution to racism, that makes the privileged the victims, opens the doors for the eruption of tensions from which our fledgling democratic project might never recover. 

Zama Ndlovu is a columnist, communicator and the author of A Bad Black’s Manifesto

The views are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.