A UNIQUE characteristic of SA as a society is the racialised structural inequality inherited from the apartheid period. It was an intended and planned outcome of a warped strategy and a set of policy positions designed and rigorously implemented to achieve it. In a very weird way the outcome was hugely successful and achieved the objective of creating a reality that inferred a sense of white supremacy and protected opportunity among white people.
The impact naturally developed a mind-set or paradigm that finds expression in embedded racial attitudes and beliefs. Paradigms are the foundation to our thinking and they can liberate or limit our outlook and imprison us.
The baby boomer generation constitutes the biggest adult demographic and most of their adult lives were spent under this enveloping and dominant policy and culture of the apartheid system. Their children were also brought under this culture. Many were mentally and spiritually liberated enough to understand that it was a bigoted and hateful policy that eventually turned SA into the scum of the world.
But it must be accepted that there will always be those that have liberated themselves from this paradigm and yet retain its vestiges deep in their psyche. It will take at least two more generations to exorcise this demon. And these are the people that dominate the business organizations at most critical levels.
When the drafters of our constitution imagined the new society we need to build, and we adopted it through our representatives, it was a deliberate expression of our intent to adopt a new set of human values and rights as contained in Chapter One of the Constitution. We followed this act with the publication of a series of laws that were intended to remove and reverse the discriminatory laws that conflicted with this new hope and vision.
The question that we need to reflect upon is whether we have paid required attention and effort to address the structural manifestations of the apartheid legacy in a systematic and vigorous way beyond our usually public rhetoric about the evils of the system?
The legacy of apartheid inequality is manifested everywhere in our society from the spatial zoning patterns to income and wealth disparities and access to opportunities. This reality inadvertently serves to reinforce the embedded racial paradigms and attitudes that were nurtured during the apartheid era and also underpins the social pathologies that define our current social fabric. It also undermines the nation building efforts that are at the centre of Madiba’s legacy. A good place to see the stubbornness of this legacy is in our business organizations and their slow pace of transformation. The incidents of racism that have been exposed recently are also proof that the deep seated apartheid paradigms and attitudes will take long to be eradicated.
What we also need to understand and accept is that apartheid caused a form of “social death”, to use Orlando Paterson’s descriptive, that has left an enduring sense of dehumanisation and inferiority complex among the black people that will take generations to eradicate. The test and task for all South Africans is to develop a new sense of humanity that is enshrined in the African concept of Ubuntu and the Constitution.
What clearly is missing is an over-arching vision, strategy and focused action to deliver on those factors like inclusive growth that can significantly impact unemployment and inequality.
It cannot be denied that the government has, since 1994, developed very sound policies and strategies to confront and reverse the impact of the apartheid legacy. And indeed our strategies on poverty alleviation have had a significant impact on the lives of the poor. But we must also accept that we have let down the poor black child by allowing the public education system to become dysfunctional under our watch.
It is an accepted fact that quality education is one of the best levers for opening new opportunities for young people and for ensuring that the poor child is not trapped in poverty, yet we have failed spectacularly to develop a system that can efficiently deliver these opportunities. By all considerations, public education is in crisis and it will require extraordinary effort and visionary strategy to deal with it. There is no indication that such a strategy is in the offing.
The post-apartheid reality is that political power relations have changed dramatically, but the undeserved wealth accumulated by whites under the apartheid system remains untouched. In fact, for many, the value of wealth that was accumulated has been rapidly increased by the global opportunities brought about by the democratic SA.
On the other hand, the economic power relations that rendered apartheid unfair and unjust have continued in the democratic SA. The undeserved poverty and inequality suffered by the black majority continues to exist and, in fact, they have increased on a number of measures. We are now the most unequal society in the world as a result of the policy decisions we made after the transition.
Achille Mbembe provides a sobering reflection on our situation: “But the defeat of legalised white supremacy has not meant that the struggle for racial equality is over. Pervasive material inequality between whites and blacks coexists with formal legal equality. Significant racial inequality remains, for example in average household income, wealth, home ownership, employment opportunities and access to quality healthcare. The institutional mechanisms for enforcing anti-discriminatory laws are still inadequately administered. Far too many poor blacks are still not in a position where they can create something meaningful with their lives. Too many still have nothing to lose”.
We need a new sense of urgency in confronting inequality and its drivers and uplifting the material conditions of our poor communities after the August local government elections. The alternative is a future of uncertainty and social instability.