White and black ‘victims’ are in denial

Helen Zille

We’re all human. That’s why it’s better together.

Every person must have real opportunities and access to resources directed towards equalising opportunities, says the writer. Credit: ING

“As a prelude, whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with blacks. They must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior.” – Steve Biko quoted in the Boston Globe, October 25, 1977.

This quote captures the basic premise of Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement, which began a new chapter in South African politics over 40 years ago. Before then, political analysis had focused on race, or class – or both. Biko suggested it was about something else: At the heart of South Africa’s social and political trauma, he suggested, was the issue of self-esteem. Only when South Africans had “freed their minds” would it be possible to build a truly non-racial society.

Biko’s insight did not deny the existence, or the legacy of, structural oppression and entrenched racial discrimination. But, he argued, to overcome this legacy people had to wage a struggle inside their heads. They had to stop seeing themselves as either victors or victims, and start believing in their own (and other people’s) value and legitimacy as equal human beings.

Only when they had “freed their minds” would they be able to change their own circumstances and the world and give others the space to do so too. Human beings are not merely passive victims of structural or social forces. They can choose to become agents of development and progress in their environment.

Today, 35 years after Biko’s murder, many white South Africans see themselves as victims. Victimhood gives them a sense of identity and entitlement, allows them to disengage from the project of nation building and justifies their creating a “comfort zone” with other victims in which to reinforce a sense of grievance through constant complaint.

These people are “professional whites”. Their whiteness is their identity and defines their alienation. It keeps them in denial, which is where they choose to be.

Equally, there are South Africans of colour who cannot face abandoning the comfort of victimhood, or seize the responsibility for becoming agents of their own destiny. Both categories are constantly on the lookout for any incident that can reinforce their alienation. Every interaction is interpreted through the lens of their own psychological expectations of prejudice.

A recent example of this was the “Reverend” Kemo Waters who used Twitter to threaten to kill a “material number of whites” after being kept waiting at the bar of a busy Camps Bay restaurant for 30 minutes when he arrived without a booking at the height of the tourist season. He attributed the request to wait at the bar as racism. (He has subsequently withdrawn and apologised for his threat to “kill whites”.)

This is an extreme example of a mindset that puts the brakes on South Africa’s development because it creates a paralysis that prevents people from recognising or using their opportunities.

Having said this, it is still sadly true that some people have far more opportunities than others. It is also true that some people do much more with the limited opportunities they have than many who are born with the proverbial silver-spoon-in-the-mouth. Paradoxically, the more opportunities many people have, the less they recognise or use them.

What is the government’s role in addressing the legacy of disadvantage and inequality? The primary role is to ensure that every person has real opportunities and resources are directed towards equalising opportunities as rapidly as possible. This is the only sustainable form of affirmative action, because it enables people to use their opportunities and requires them to contribute to development and progress in order to live a life they value.

This is the polar opposite of manipulating outcomes for the politically connected few. Affirmative action that degenerates into political patronage is the fastest road to the failed state. The goal of rapidly expanding opportunities depends on government playing a key role, particularly through providing excellent education, health care, and an environment for economic growth – the most effective way of increasing job opportunities.

But even the best government in the world cannot change the circumstances of people who are determined to remain victims. A government can provide opportunity but it cannot save a person from the chains of his own psyche.

In the years I have been in government, I have seen how disproportionately resources are used to pamper passive victims and reinforce their marginalisation – rather than extend opportunities for those who will use them well.

I vividly recall an experience when I was the provincial minister of education in 2000. I visited a state-of-the-art school called Eureka in Rawsonville. It was designated a “special school”, accepting only pupils who had been convicted of crimes in court, but given a second chance because of their youth, in what used to be called a “reform” school. I had never seen a school so well equipped with everything from computers to technical equipment and vocational apparatus of all types. The buildings and boarding facilities were in mint condition. The young people had every possible facility they might require to have a second chance at a decent start in life. I was delighted to learn of the school’s successes, but saddened to hear that a certain rate of recidivism remained.

Afterwards, I visited a local primary school on a farm in the area and was stunned by the contrast. This school did not even have running water or flush toilets, let alone the best facilities, equipment and technology. But it felt like a stab in the heart when one of the mothers approached me and asked:

Mev Zille, ek wil weet hoe ek my kind in Eureka skool kan kry sonder dat hy ’n misdaad pleeg.” (Mrs Zille, I want to know how I can get my child into Eureka school without him having to commit a crime.)

Here was a responsible mother, seeking to give her child every opportunity, and wondering how it would be possible if he remained in a school without even rudimentary facilities. She could not understand how it could be that young people first had to commit a serious crime, and notch up a criminal conviction, before being able to get access to a state-of-the-art education facility.

It did not make sense to her, and in that moment, although I believe in the importance of a “second chance”, it did not make sense to me either.

The most difficult aspect of governance is deciding how limited resources should be spent. There is always a difficult trade-off. And the best policy analysts battle to weigh up the consequences of budget decisions, both intended and unintended.

Over the years, this conversation has played itself over and again in my head at budget time: should we be spending more to create good opportunities for people who will recognise them and use them? Or are the needs of the “second chance” too pressing, from juvenile criminals to drug rehabilitation? This question is complicated by the fact that most of the “second chance” expenditure has to compensate for dysfunctional parenting, especially fathers who refuse to take responsibility for, or maintain, their children. This failure costs the state billions each year.

I also recall from my brief tenure as MEC the special schools in Constantia that were then still called “reformatories”, one for boys and one for girls. Working on the annual budget, it became apparent that we were spending 10 times as much per child in the Constantia reform schools than we were on children in ordinary public schools.

And the outcomes of our efforts were not particularly encouraging. We then took the decision to turn the “Constantia School for Boys” into the Cape Academy of Maths and Science in order to give real opportunities to children from disadvantaged communities who showed aptitude and ability in these disciplines.

In my years in government, I have come to the conclusion that our policies and budgets must aim to create more opportunity, and support people who are prepared to use their opportunities. Progress happens when people, who are active agents, reinforce each other in using and creating opportunities.

And while we must always seek to ensure that young people have a “second chance” we must avoid a situation where policies and budgets entrench permanent victimhood. That is why we must work to prevent diseases that are preventable, so that more resources are available for treating unpreventable conditions. That is why we must partner with families and communities so that they play their part, with the state, in developing sustainable settlements. That is why we must look at the key levers – such as a broadband backbone – that will open more opportunities in every area, from job-seeking to business expansion.

This is what we mean when we say “Better Together”. It is the basis of sustainable progress and requires us to free our minds, recognising that we are all only human, not superior or inferior, engaging each other in the great project of building one nation with one future.