Press "Enter" to skip to content

SA remains a bastion of racism, while the rest of Africa moves on

How has the rest of Africa succeeded in putting its traumatic racial discrimination past behind it? Speak to anyone doing business in Africa and they will tell you that “race” is not an issue.

They will tell you that doing business is not impeded by requirements to have “black” partners and that the concept of “previously disadvantaged people” does not exist! Choosing your business partner is based on rational and sound decisions, such as their knowledge of the needs and desires of the local population, rather than the colour of their skin.

Employers are free to employ whosoever they choose, and there are no “racial quotas” that need to be met. There are no onerous “compliance” issues, which require companies to report on the racial mix of each level of employee and there are no fines for failure to comply.

There are no “good governance” requirements, which require consultants and compliance bodies to vet compliance by companies. Sure there is corruption, but corruption is endemic everywhere in Africa and is not exclusive to Africa. It may even be worse in South Africa, because the very structure of “empowerment” is prone to abuse.

Empowerment requires “subjective” factors, such as BBEEE scores, to be considered before awarding contracts. “Objective” criteria such as the cheapest price, or the quality of the product or the ability to perform the task on time are put aside, while insidious political considerations take precedence.

Until recently, no special consideration was granted to locally manufactured products, until the department of trade and industry (DTI) woke up, 17 years too late to save South Africa’s manufacturing industry, which shrank from 25% of our gross national product to about 10%.

That is what happens when central planners – mostly with communist world views – and no business experience, plan and run an economy. The DTI previously could not conceptualise that locally made products were produced using local labour because its incentive schemes were more orientated towards “ownership”. The department was more focused on the racial make-up of the enterprise’s ownership. So a black-owned enterprise importing goods from China, would be a preferred bidder against a “white” owned local manufacturer.

We appeared to be doing everything right when we started our transformation to democracy. Nelson Mandela by his own example showed us how to reconcile and put aside our differences to build a rainbow nation. But then under Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma we lost our way and now South Africa (and Zimbabwe) is out of sync with the rest of Africa.

Instead of moving on, and putting our awful racial past behind us, we are merely prolonging it. It permeates our society. Our most venerated institutions are being sullied by brazen racialism. Our judicial system is just such an example.

Political interference by the ministers of justice and the president when it comes to the processing of appointing judges – those we depend on to uphold our wonderful Constitution – is the order of the day. A constant in all these manoeuvrings is the race issue, despite all the protestations (and court cases) of the chief justice and the minister of justice.

Good, if not great, attorneys and advocates are overlooked only because of the colour of their skins. We need to rehabilitate our legal system and this will require that the process of appointing judges needs to be colour-blind and based on merit only.

Even our national obsession, sports, is permeated with racism. Political appointments to top jobs appear to factor in racial considerations. Pressure on coaches to choose teams that represent the racial profile of the general population is well known. Our African brothers, who base their selections on merit, meanwhile are making great strides in international competitions.

Despite severe financial impediments, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and even Botswana attained more medals than team South Africa in the recent World Athletics Championship in Moscow. They are making progress in other sports too: soccer, cricket and even rugby.

Why after nearly 20 years of freedom do we need to have black-only clubs or institutions such as the Black Management Forum, the Black Lawyers Association, the Black Business Council of South Africa, the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, the National Society of Black Engineers, the Association of Black Securities and Investment Professions, the Black Business Women’s Association and the list goes on and on.

While it is understandable that some professions may have problems and issues that could be race specific, the sheer plethora and range of “black” specific associations is inconsistent with our non-racial Constitution and indicates that racial concerns still drive almost every field of endeavour in our society.
Appointments in our parastatals, which should concern all citizens, because their taxes have been used (and abused) to subsidise these ventures, have also become the domain of racially motivated appointments. All advertisements for these and other positions in the civil service, which now employs nearly half of the formally employed workforce in South Africa, grants preference on racial grounds to so-called “previously disadvantaged people” (PDI’S), which invariably leads to the exclusion of white people.

Admission to tertiary education is a well-trod path of racial discrimination, granting preference to so-called PDI’s, but it is hurtful to those it excludes and accounts partially for nearly half of students not completing their courses. The cost of this wastage to the national fiscus is certainly a huge waste of hard earned tax payers money and does the country a huge disservice.

It results in many of our best students going overseas and ultimately being lost to the country.

While we need to acknowledge the valid reasons for affirmative action to rectify the imbalances of the past, which deprived black people of all their basic rights, we also need to stop justifying acts of racism in order to rectify these imbalances.

We need to state unequivocally that we are against racism, otherwise we will merely prolong it and kick the can down the road. Failure to insert a sunset clause into our affirmative action policies is merely enriching the already rich, slowing economic growth and bleeding our society of its best people.

We need to apply the quote credited to George Santayama: “Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.”


  • Ben Levitas

    Ben studied at Wits, the Hebrew University, London School of Economics and University of Pretoria. He has two master’s degrees and has written four books on anthropology. He was the founding member of Jews for Justice, which took a stand against apartheid and provided assistance to victims of violence in Crossroads. He started Boston House College, a multiracial school in 1979. He currently serves as chairperson of the SA Zionist Federation in the Cape Council. He is married with four children.