Time to discard racial preferencing

Summary - When the ANC came to power it had the chance to offer the country a fresh start by abolishing all racial preferencing and promoting equal opportunity for all.

Instead, it retained racial preferencing, cloaking it in justificatory new labels such as affirmative action and black economic empowerment. There can be no argument with policies designed to compensate for past injustices, provided their aim is to introduce equality of opportunity for historically disadvantaged South Africans. The problem lies with attempts to ensure equality of outcomes through social engineering. It is imperative, for example, to improve education for black South Africans so that they can compete on an equal footing to qualify as doctors or accountants, but it is unacceptable to decree that the racial composition of the medical or accounting professions must reflect the country’s racial demography. Such policies, no matter how laudable their intentions, create a demotivating sense of entitlement among the supposed beneficiaries and breed resentment among those who are excluded. Attempts to enforce rigid racial proportionality also ignore cultural dynamics. Black Americans are exceptionally talented in art and music and are ‘over-represented’ in those spheres, and it would be patently nonsensical to impose limits on the numbers of black artists or musicians. It is equally absurd to limit the number of white South Africans in rugby or cricket, or the number of black South Africans playing soccer. The suspicion lingers that the ANC is pursuing racial preferencing to strengthen its appeal among black voters. The time has come for the ANC to apply the notion of racial equality that runs so strongly through the Freedom Charter, and for South Africans, competing on equal terms, to be judged according to their abilities, not their skin colour.

The leaders of the ruling African National Congress should ponder the military achievements of Lazare Carnot, the French general, mathematician, engineer and philosopher: when revolutionary France was threatened by besieging Austrian and Prussian armies in 1797, he organised a massive counter-offensive that saved France from defeat and humiliation. While it is widely known that his organising genius was a major factor in halting the enemy advance, it is less well appreciated that there was another reason for his success: his recognition of the galvanising power of opening a military career to the talents of all and his willingness to do so when he recruited 14 new armies to defend the revolution.

When the ANC came to power in South Africa nearly 200 years later, it, too, had the opportunity to open the way to the top for all, irrespective of race, class, culture or religion. Had it done so it would have offered a new start after sweeping away the stultifying impact of apartheid ideology. Instead, however, the ANC introduced a new form of racial preferencing in favour of black South Africans in general and indigenous blacks — aka Africans in the exclusive sense of the term — in particular. The ANC did not, of course, refer to its policy as racial preferencing. It favoured more justificatory labels, including affirmative action, demographic proportionality and black economic empowerment.

There can be no argument with policies designed to compensate for past injustices, provided they aim at introducing equality of opportunity for historically disadvantaged South Africans and do not attempt to ensure equality of outcome through social engineering.

The point can be illustrated concretely. It is acceptable and, indeed, imperative to expand the educational opportunities of black South Africans by spending greater sums of money on their education, particularly in the historically underdeveloped black areas where schools were inferior and teachers often poorly qualified. It is necessary to do so to give blacks an equal opportunity to qualify as, say, doctors or accountants. It is unacceptable, however, to predetermine the outcome by stipulating that the racial profiles of doctors or accountants should reflect the racial demography of South Africa, ie that the number of black doctors or accountants should correspond to the proportion of blacks in the population as a whole.

Racial preferencing aimed at equality of outcomes, even if the intentions of the policy-makers are laudable, has deleterious consequences. It creates a demotivating sense of entitlement in many of the supposed beneficiaries. If they feel they are free affirmative action riders, it often affects their self-esteem adversely. At the same time it impacts negatively on lighter-hued South Africans who are excluded for inherited factors over which they have no control. Exclusion breeds resentment and prompts them to opt out of contributing positively to the new South Africa, not infrequently by immigrating.

There is another important aspect to ponder. Culture is a dynamic force. Thus black people in the United States have a particular affinity for art and music that leads to their “over-representation” in those spheres of life. It would be crassly stupid for Americans to set a legislatively determined limit to the number or proportion of black artists or musicians or even to apply political pressure to reduce their numbers. By the same token it is asinine and insensitive for South Africans to attempt to limit the number of whites in the national rugby or cricket teams. The same logicality applies to the predominance of black players in the national soccer team. It is an natural outcome of their numerical dominance and, just as important, their palpable passion for soccer.

There is yet another reason for scepticism about the ANC’s policy of racial preferencing. For all the talk about addressing historical injustices and alleviating poverty, the suspicion remains that racial preferencing is pursued to strengthen the ANC’s appeal to the black majority and hence to prolong its tenure in office.

The time has come for the ANC to apply the notion of racial equality that runs so strongly through the 1955 Freedom Charter, a notion that is encapsulated in the declaration that South Africa belongs to its entire people, irrespective of race, culture or religion. It is time, too, for people to be judged according their talents, not their skin colour, subject to two provisos: equality of opportunity should be established as a de facto reality as well as fine-sounding principle, and discrimination, whether of the old or new variety, consigned to the historical dustbin.