Youths look at water in a bucket after water supply was restored in Boitumelong township in Bloemhof, North West on Thursday afternoon, 29 May 2014. The water was smelly and brown, residents said. More than 200 people were hospitalised with diarrhoea this week in the water-depleted North West town which has seen schools shut down and police and municipal offices left without water.Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

Vulnerable communities, like Bloemhof, are paying a deadly price for race-based affirmative action, says Frans Cronje.

Cape Town - I time to scrap race-based affirmative action, given the damage the policy is causing to poor and vulnerable communities.

It has created a small black elite that uses its capacity to control access to the benefits of the policy to perpetuate its own advantage.

It is largely for this reason that, 20 years into our democracy, fewer than 10 percent of black-African people and/or households have private medical insurance or pay bonds on houses – two of the best benchmarks of middle-class status.

At the same time, more than half the number of young people are unemployed. The juxtaposition of this small elite against the masses of desperately poor people suggests the extent of gatekeeping practices.

Worse than the gatekeeping, is that race-based affirmative action is a veil behind which to conceal corruption and incompetence – and mainly vulnerable communities are paying a deadly price for this.

Because many people are appointed to positions on the basis of their race, there is little public criticism of those appointments even when the people in question are manifestly unfit. Take the example of events in Bloemhof last week.

The Bloemhof municipality “lost its capacity” to maintain the sewer plant. People drank contaminated tap water and three babies aged 7, 9, and 13 months died, while scores were taken to hospital.

There is no doubt that the officials responsible for the deaths were appointed, at least in part, on grounds of race-based affirmative action and a direct causal link, therefore, exists between the policy and the deaths.

Sheer state incompetence also saw babies die in Limpopo and Gauteng – and there can be little doubt affirmative action played a role in appointing the people.

Yet in all the commentary and reporting on the deaths, there is no mention of affirmative action. How can it be that perhaps the most high profile of all government policies does not attract even a mention when things go as badly as they have in Bloemhof?

As is so often the case, the truth lies in what no one is prepared to say. Affirmative action cannot be mentioned because, even in the face of the deaths of children, to do so is to cross the barrier of political correctness forced on our country by the ideology of race-based empowerment.

Defending the policy in the face of these deaths, even by omission, reveals a callous indifference to the deaths of (mainly black) children.

Only once people begin to break down this barrier does it become possible to talk about alternatives – and these are what South Africa needs. Such alternatives should ensure that poor people become the focus of the policy.

The most promising alternative may be the policy of economic empowerment for the disadvantaged, which is being developed by the Institute of Race Relations. The policy seeks to use socio-economic status to prioritise access to the building blocks of economic advancement, such as education, employment, and entrepreneurship. These, with rapid rates of economic growth, will allow poor people to pull themselves out of poverty and into the middle classes.

* Dr Frans Cronje is the chief executive of the Institute of Race Relations.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus