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To ‘BE(E)’ or not to ‘BE(E)’? This question raised in Hamlet’s suicidal ramblings still rings true for us today. There are distinct parallels in this Shakespearean dilemma between Hamlet’s anguish of his life’s purpose and those of us in post-apartheid South Africa grappling with affirmative action. The question is being asked in all quarters. Should black economic empowerment be scrapped or not? After 20 years of democracy should we still continue to favour blacks over other citizens? Has BEE been good or bad for us, and finally, if we continue, will we be committing national suicide?
Virtually everywhere in the world today there is a demand for greater equality among ethnic groups. Whether it is in India, the US, Belgium, Sri Lanka, Malaysia or Canada, economically and educationally disadvantaged ethnic groups are demanding government intervention to redress past inequalities. But in addressing these demands through affirmative action, reservations or compensatory discrimination, the global concern for distributive justice to eliminate inequalities is often fraught with difficulties and cries of reverse discrimination.
As I write this piece I am told that a young black academic is working on a project which outlines how BEE has led to the systematic deterioration of the health profession. To this we can add education, welfare and the justice system. Critics, sceptics and antagonists will all agree that BEE is reverse apartheid and that whites, Indians and coloureds feel marginalised by this exclusive act. The by-product of this practice is a steady haemorrhaging of our valuable human capital into the UK, Australia and the US.
Transformation, in its wake, has produced an acute sensitivity to race.In envious undertones people talk about incompetent blacks getting all the jobs. Sometimes this type of thinking can be a cover-up for one’s own mediocrity.
Many South Africans, for example, were initially horrified when Chris Stals gave way to Tito Mboweni as governor of the Reserve Bank, but they soon grew comfortable with his competence. It’s really about fighting our little gremlins of racism which we all, black and white, harbour deep within our psyches. There is nothing wrong with this as long as we are honest with ourselves and expose ourselves to constant introspective analysis and the will to amend our ways.
Affirmative action may be accepted by many thinking individuals as the “lesser evil” for the “greater good”, but the consequences of defining privilege in racial terms does not augur well for nation building. Such policies tend to heighten racial consciousness and divide a people into “Us” and “Them”. It legitimises the treatment of people as group members rather than as individuals on the basis of merit. It therefore contains a profound internal contradiction, as it entrenches what it purports to eliminate – racial distinctions.
At another level affirmative action demeans the group it is supposed to help, since the rationale for it implies inferiority. Its philosophy is clearly paternalistic as it perpetuates stereotypes of black inferiority. The more blacks are given preferential treatment, the more questionable the qualification of all blacks becomes. This is all logical, reasonable and inevitable, but what is germane to this argument is one of historical and psychological oppression. It is important to view the problem in a context of years of inequality and institutional oppression. Without transformation, how is it possible for the mass of black children growing up in townships and rural areas without parents and families to make headway in their lifetime? Through no fault of theirs, they’ve been the victims of the cruellest form of racism and unspeakable exploitation that will take generations to overcome.
The struggle of black people in South Africa is not only one of political oppression, but one of mental oppression. Menticide is perhaps the cruellest form of oppression. In our case, how many missed opportunities were lost to people of colour just because of their race. How many potential little Einsteins, Mozarts, Tensinghs, Neil Armstrongs have we lost by virtue of not being able to recognise, address and support their genius.
In their book, The Mark of Oppression, Abraham Kardiner and Lionel Ovesey refer to the psychological scars that black people bear wherever they go in the world. “…the black person has always been defined as being inferior and accordingly, as is predicted in the self-fulfilling prophecy, he has made this prophecy come true.”
No thinking or feeling South African can deny that we have to address past inequalities as a nation. Yet South Africans are experiencing the effects of transformation positively and negatively. There are those who are the direct beneficiaries of privileges denied to them in the past and those who have had to relinquish their status and privileges accorded to them on the basis of race. Wherever we may be in the receiving line, one thing is clear: transformation is essential and it is good. It is about acting in the best interest of South Africa as a nation. Like purgatory, transformation is a state of temporary suffering or expiation. It is a process towards a goal, and once reached, a nation should become normalised – meaning adherence to a constitution that treats all its citizens, black or white, as bona fide nationals with equal rights and opportunities to prosper and contribute to its development.
Of crucial significance is whether our government has a road map to guide it along the route of transformation. Is there a plan to reassure all its citizens of its progress towards an equitable society. Do I as a South African of third generation descent have a dedicated place in my country? Will my security and that of my children be determined by my race and culture? These are questions many South Africans of various hues are asking themselves. They have to tell their children now what the future will hold.
Transformation must be celebrated as a necessary process for normalising an essentially abnormal society. And if we abandoned it tomorrow, can we really trust that non-blacks at the top will make place for black people?
I think not. However, the exclusion of talented men and women outside of racial quotas cannot be perpetuated indefinitely. There must be parallel opportunities for building a truly non-racial South Africa where all its citizens have a place in the sun.
* Devi Rajab is a psychologist and commentator. Her column appears regularly in The Mercury.