News and Views

Does race still matter in South Africa?

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By Justice Malala South African political analyst

In mid-August the national airline, South African Airways (SAA), put up online advertisements for the training of cadet pilots.

The trade union Solidarity put in two applications with exactly the same qualifications and backgrounds except for one crucial fact: One was white and the other black.

The white applicant immediately received a rejection letter while the black applicant progressed up the vetting system.

A massive storm broke out over the issue, with South Africa’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, saying the practice takes “our reconciliation project backwards”.

Spokeswoman Natasha Michael was quoted as saying racial discrimination had been “the animating idea of apartheid” and had no place in a democratic South Africa.

This is a familiar narrative in a South Africa that is trying to redress the inequities of apartheid’s past and build an egalitarian country.

Yet the SAA story becomes somewhat more complex when one considers the facts at the national airline.

“Currently, 85% of SAA pilots are white, of which 7.6% are white females,” the airline said in a statement.

“This means that only 15% of SAA pilots are black, ie Africans, Coloureds [mixed race people] and Indians. This emphasises the need for SAA to align this intervention to its transformation strategy.”

According to the 2011 census, whites make up 9.2% of South Africa’s population.

Something is clearly wrong at SAA, and something clearly needs to be done.

Does it include a blanket ban of white candidates, though?

What should managers at SAA do to correct the clearly skewed employment patterns among its pilots?

‘Cash cow’

Eighteen years after democracy, South Africa is still grappling with issues of race, representation, redress and equity.

A raft of laws ranging from affirmative action to Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) have been adopted, but the debate is still as raw today as it was back in the early days of a new South Africa in the late 1990s.

Last week the secretary general of the governing African National Congress (ANC), Gwede Mantashe, received both plaudits and brickbats when he said black-owned companies, which receive preferential treatment in the dishing out of government contracts in line with BEE legislation, used the state as their cash cow by supplying sub-standard goods at abnormally large fees.

Mr Mantashe said most black-owned firms built public schools or supplied services at three times the normal price.

He and many others are of the view that for this and other reasons, BEE has not worked and has benefited only a small coterie of politically connected individuals.

While this coterie has become the reviled face of Black Economic Empowerment, the recent protests at Lonmin’s Marikana mine have presented the face of poverty and inequality to South Africans yet again.

In its latest report on South Africa, the German think tank Bertelsmann Stiftung says: “Since democratisation in 1994, income inequalities within the different race groups, especially within the black population group have increased strongly.

“According to the latest figures from the World Bank, 42.9% of South Africans can be considered to be poor, with less than $2 [£1.25] a day to live on. The overwhelming majority of these are black South Africans.”


And there lies the rub.

We have lifted a massive amount of black people out of poverty and – crucially – removed the barriers to their being able to improve themselves.

Yet they are leaving behind another, huge and restless underclass.

Where should our emphasis be?

South Africa, with Brazil, are now the two most unequal societies in the world.

It would be easy to argue that efforts to empower blacks should be scrapped because, surely, after 18 years race does not matter any more.

Instead, inequality and class differences are the real divides.

When the poor rise up, they will rise up against the rich in general and not against the white rich only.

It is a seductive argument, often put up by South Africa’s former President FW de Klerk and others in saying the ANC’s policies have failed the poor.

As in the SAA case, the truth is a little bit more complicated and needs a far more nuanced approach.

What South Africa now needs is a leadership crop that will commit to an economic programme that both grows South Africa’s lethargic economy – we will only achieve 2.5% growth this year – to create the jobs we need to lift those languishing at the bottom of our society out of their desperate plight.

It remains a crime that seven million of our fellow citizens are unemployed and more than 2.2 million of them say they have given up looking.

Blanket ban?

The ANC has failed to provide such an economic programme and is mired in ideological battles and corruption.

Programmes to include blacks, if this economic programme is implemented, will increasingly become irrelevant.

For now, however, such programmes remain necessary and a nuanced programme at SAA – not the blanket ban of whites – is a case in point.

Such policies cannot be retained in perpetuity, and indeed a cut-off date may be necessary for them.

Does race or class matter – and which matters more?

Neither really matter right now. It is education that matters.

Our country is the worst performer in maths and science education in the world, according to the World Economic Forum.

Our government has failed to deliver textbooks to hundreds of thousands of children this year.

One in six pupils who wrote last year’s matric secondary school-leaving certificate in maths got less than 10%.

We can bang on until we are blue in the face about getting blacks into positions of authority.

But we need to educate them to be able to fill those positions.

In this we are failing signally.

It is poverty, inequality and lack of education that will push our country to the brink now.

The explosion will come from these quarters.

It will not be race.

The programme BBC Africa Debate will be exploring race in South Africa in its next edition to be recorded and broadcast from Johannesburg on 31 August 2012.

This debate is now closed, here are some of your comments:

Very well said! Almost all world problems can be traced back to economic inequalities, and education is the “Great divide” that separates and allows the inequalities to perpetuate.

Giuseppe Cirillo, Johannesburg, South Africa

I think it is important not to waste the talents and education of non-black South Africans in order to pull the country out of the problems. At the same time develop the potential hidden inside the masses of under educated black people. It will take generations however and a strong but fair government will have to do a precarious balancing act in order to keep the peace and increase stability. I’ve spoken to white South Africans and they seem committed to push the country forward together with the other ethnic population but they feel their efforts are undervalued and frustrated by rules like the BEE.

Dan Uneken, Spikkestad, Norway

I am a European citizen who moved to South Africa 5 years ago. I moved here for the beauty of the country and the diversity it has to offer, as well as for the sense of freedom one can still find here. One lesson I have learned here is that you need to learn how to fend for yourself. You can not rely on a basic degree or a few basic skills to find a job that will sustain you and your family. Education, intellect, and initiative more than anything are needed if you wish to succeed. I think lack of education, and too many precedents of people having failed to get out of poverty, has made a large part of our population lethargic. Very few people take the initiative to look outside the box and make a concrete active plan to succeed. In this country, people do not have the luxury of a government you can rely on for benefits, doll etc. You either make your own way, or you sink, like so many do. Indeed, education is key… Knowledge and understand can make you strong and positive – ignorance keeps people down. Sadly, we see examples of this all around us.

Charlotte Furness, Cape Town, South Africa

Well, it will obviously take some time, maybe a couple of generations until the BEE becomes redundant and the proportion of different races in any profession matches their percentage in the SA society. However, as correctly pointed out, education and equitable distribution of wealth (read lower corruption) are the key. Will SA, burdened as it is by the UK system which favors a minority make the leap?

Vivek, Zurich, Switzerland

My husband and I are educating a 15-year-old Xhosa girl who is now in G9 at Wynberg Girls. Her G8 year was very difficult for her, as she didn’t know the basics – 10 times table (and all other tables), basic fractions, percentages, compass points, how to tell the time, what a globe was, what a map was, that most novels and movies were fictional… the list is endless. She failed spectacularly her first term in Grade 8, despite being near the top of the class at her township Primary School. I cannot even begin to imagine the level of those at the bottom of the class, as to us it appeared that Nasiphe knew virtually nothing. In order for her education at WGHS to be successful, she has had to move in with us, (returning to her family for Saturday night and to attend church on Sunday), and I have become her full-time after-school tutor. It is an exhausting and time-consuming process, we have all become quite stressed and burnt-out at various points, but Nasiphe is now making real progress and it is wonderful to see her growing and learning. The whole process is all-consuming, but we don’t have our own children and I no longer work, so we are devoting ourselves to educating Nasiphe for as long as it takes for her to achieve her goal of obtaining a University degree. Not many white or Asian families are in the position we are in to be able to commit to helping at this level. The vast majority of black children will be entering High School in Grade 8 with the kind of limited knowledge and education, or in fact worse, that Nasiphe had. Without intense one-to-one tuition, how can they ever hope to succeed at High School? There are a few valuable NGOs, like the Kay Mason Foundation, which do provide High School education for black children, along with a year-long “boot-camp” for G7 pupils to get them up-to-speed before they start in G8, so that they don’t fall at the first hurdle, as Nasiphe did. But with under 50 learners in their care and a few individuals cases like ours, this is the tiniest drop in the huge ocean of ignorance and lack of education which inevitably leads to unemployment and poverty.

Andie Chandler, Cape Town, South Africa

I have noticed that the tide is turning against whites or the formerly privileged groups in several countries just because they were racist in the past. I am black, I am not an offspring of the privileged, & I too have faced racism. But I don’t agree with racism against whites (or the privileged) in the US, South Africa, Zimbabwe etc. Programmes should be designed to benefit a certain economic or social grouping, not a particular race. We can’t bridge gaps by pitying one race against another, whether for the wrong or right reasons.

Herbert Kigozi, Kampala, Uganda

Abusing statistics to justify positive discrimination is appalling. Of course there will be a legacy of white pilots. You can’t just replace a professional pilot overnight, it takes a progression through a school, university and training system that runs for over 20 years. Even once that process starts, you have 30 years of career to work through the system.

Kevin Morice, Aberdeen

Thank you Justice Malala for such a level-headed approach to a very contentious issue. I, like most South Africans, care deeply about the country and its future. What I want to know is: how can I, as an individual, a middle-class white woman make a difference? What can the individual do in his/her capacity? I don’t want to wait around for the government to sort out its policies and I don’t think we should rely solely on the state. Can we not start a poverty eradication campaign that aims to inspire the “haves” to engage with the “have-nots”? Even something as simple as encouraging each South African to volunteer one or two hours of their time a week to train or assist. We’re a strange bunch: on the one hand quite caustic, but on the other, easily inspired to create change… so you never know, this might actually work. Get one of our award-winning ad agencies to market it, too.

Renata Harper, Cape Town, South Africa

I am a retired pilot from SAA and the following story was related to me on a flight by one of the black pilots. ” I was one of the few black pilots to qualify in the SAA training scheme in Australia. Now so many years on I find myself financially way behind my colleagues who failed even though SAA pays one of the highest salaries around. The failures all went into BEE schemes and the like and have profited immensely while I work for a salary. As a black man if your object is to make money being a pilot is a wasted opportunity”.

Iain Maricich, Knysna, South Africa

I would dearly love to move home and settle, but I simply cannot get a job. I have a good job here and live a good life, but it’s not home. I have applied for countless jobs back home in SA yet I haven’t even had replies back to my applications. BEE (at least in some form) was a necessity to go some way towards evening out the wrongs of apartheid, but what is happening in cases such as the SAA case is clearly wrong. I don’t know how we fix it, but it needs to be fixed.

Stefan, Glasgow

You cannot reverse the impact of a system like apartheid in 18 years! It will take at least a generation or two. The damage racism or systems like apartheid do go deep into the psychic of the victims. In your article you have a caption from a black mother who talks about ‘expecting’ the government to solve her problems. And another caption from a white building contractor who feels ‘alienated’ because of policies like the BBE – and that South Africans should ‘fend for themselves’ – which obviously gives advantage to white people. Both show the damage apartheid has done – where black people think success can only be achieved through hand-outs from the government. And white people want to maintain the status quo and if they don’t get it they simply leave the country or feel alienated. South Africans will unfortunately have to go through this pain – but eventually as black people become more confident and have role models to look up to, I am sure the rainbow nation will shine through.

Andrew, South African in Milton Keynes, England

What a biased article, almost bordering on racist. Surely both black and white children alive at the time of democracy are now in a position to position themselves in society according to their skills rather than their colour. It is now 20 years since democracy yet you’re still blaming the ‘whites’ for all your ills. Focus that negative energy into actually doing something positive for the future. India doesn’t continually moan about ‘white’ rule, it got on with improving itself, the same with China, Singapore, Malaysia and others. South Africa was corrupt under white rule just as much as it is now and the colonial past is just used as an excuse by todays inept politicians. I fear for SA once Nelson Mandella dies! Stop blaming the past, focus on the corruption in your country today and actually focus on the living standards of your poor – whatever skin colour they may be.

Jimbob, Leeds, Yorks

I can feel for the blacks and whites in South Africa. We have similar situation in Malaysia. On top of what you have now, we have one potentially explosive factor – Islamisation of the country. Policies should be inclusive and cannot be race-based – it will never work. In our country because of our apartheid-like policies, corruptions, nepotism, crony-ism have given rise to few super-rich from the majority race on the expense of bankrupting our country. Education, judicial systems, police forces have all become corrupted and ineffective. On our back, the minorities are constantly being threaten by racial bigotry and religious extremists of the majority race. Talking about the whites having it easy in South Africa. Apparently, their BBE is derived from our apartheid-like policies.

Kong PS , Malaysia

As a South African now living abroad since the ANC government came into power I have read your article with interest – and confirms my decision to leave my homeland. As a former Manager in the Mining Industry in South Africa who dealt with Industrial Relations on a daily basis the issues highlighted in the article are the reality of South Africa – greed by the ruling Government, failing education and increasing unemployment. One of the strategies for any ruling African political parties is to keep the masses uneducated while you retain power – unfortunately, the masses will rise against the ANC and destroy the country that was handed to them. I look forward to listening to the debate!

Gareth Mason, Zug, Switzerland

In India we had the wretched caste system, which the government is trying to rectify, till now, partially successfully. The caste system, for starters is a social stratification, which over time became a serious divider of the society. The lowest in the society were most disadvantaged, who could not get good education and naturally denied social progress. The Government of India attempted to correct it by implementing Reservation policy, by which the disadvantaged people were given preference in education and government jobs. It is like giving a leg up to someone who had been historically disadvantaged. It is a necessity to give the disadvantaged people a better opportunity to improve their lives. When it was introduced in 50’s, it was supposed to evaluated every decade. Till date it has been renewed in the parliament. It has definitely improved for a good number of disadvantaged people. There are definitely flaws in the implementation, but I believe the policy is fair, though the implementation has to definitely be improved. I don’t think it is right time to discontinue the policy, but it cannot continue in perpetuity. South Africa can study this and adapt it according to their needs. Definitely the disadvantaged black people need to be given a leg up in their progress, and the advantaged White people will have to understand and work to rectify this historical error.

Giri, Bangalore, India

Well as of the issues we knew it was going to come back and there is no such thing as the Rainbow nation in South Africa. These are some of the post-colonial dilemmas which South African is not going to escape. I thought South Africa was going to learn from the rest of the continent but it’s a shame that South Africa is just gona go the same way like many failed African countries.

Chikukwa Raphael, Harare, Zimbabwe

I can totally relate to both perspectives and viewpoints quoted in this article. I am of Indian origin born in South Africa. I am currently working and living in the UK but still proudly South African. During the Apartheid era we Indians were not ‘White’ enough and now we are not ‘Black’ enough. But we still worked hard and did whatever possible to improve our living standards and communities.

Lucretia Pillay, Bedfordshire UK

Lucretia Pillay, I am sorry about the experiences you endured. I also heard that in India, there is inequalities between Indian of darker complexion and Indians with a whiter skin, it is all ignorance. This is why I am thankful for being a British citizen,and living in the UK where the rule of Law can deal with such discrimination. I was born in Burundi, and moved to the UK 13years ago.Burundi lived through a different kind of discrimination, between the Hutu majority Population,and the minority Population, what are their differences? Just physical appearances, even with that, not always accurate as some Hutu could look Tutsis, or some Tutsis look Hutus, but they all speak the same language (Kirundi), majority of both Hutu and Tutsi are Christians. None of us chose to be born in any given geographic location, race, religion, we should all try to be tolerant, or at least, let our children not follow the prejudices we lived under. South Africa’s Children’s Children will change the destiny of South Africa if we allow them to re-write the history of their Country.

Desire Katihabwa, Aberdeen, UK

I have been in South Africa past 10 months & been told by senior manager that major local employer requires director approval to employ a white person, apparently there is high taxation if company does not comply with BEE act. Problem now is that whites are so scared for their jobs it has a big impact on performance & risk taking making future job losses more likely as they trail behind European counter-parts. Socially seems to me cultures co-exist but do not mingle. Took me 9 months to cross culture & have black/coloured friends. White individuals need to try harder to make cross cultural friends. There are many angry young blacks here wanting to emulate Zimbabwe, doing nothing is liable to make things worse for future generations.

Iantha, Burgess Hill, UK

I took part in an education research project back in 2002, that visited a group of international schools, including three in Cape Town. I witnessed many of the issues raised in the above article first hand. One of the statements I heard while living there was that the “Apartheid of race has been replaced by one of wealth”. I believe that education is the key but, back in 2002, there were some enormous challenges facing the less wealthy educational establishments, and it seems that these challenges still remain. I am looking forward to the BBC Africa Debate show and will be interested to see how the topic of education equality is tackled.

Graeme Sutherland, Aberdeen, UK

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