Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

South Africans should stop thinking in terms of race

It was with a heavy heart that I read the news, first, of Herman Mashaba’s resignation from the position of mayor of Johannesburg and from the Democratic Alliance (DA), and soon afterwards of that of both Mmusi Maimane (leader) and Athol Trollip (chairman) from their respective leadership positions in the DA, and from the party itself, which also meant that they departed from Parliament. Mashaba’s decision was prompted, according to himself, by the election of party stalwart, Helen Zille, to the position of chairperson of the federal council of the DA, which he apparently viewed as the return of the ‘right wing’ of the party to power. More recently John Steenhuisen has resigned his position as chief whip of the DA in parliament, apparently adding to the DA’s woes, although he may have a different trajectory within the party in mind.

These developments are to be seen in a very serious light, despite the ANC’s strategic denial that they are significant.

My reason for writing this is that, as far as I can judge, the DA is, and has been, the only political party (among those with a significant following) which can claim to be non-racial in its practices (and not only its policies), regardless of what other parties may claim in this regard. This is one of the reasons why I have supported it, despite its neoliberal economic policies not appealing to me. It is also a party — and there may be others — that has come across as being sternly opposed to corruption, and that has a good, if not squeaky clean, record of governance, particularly in the Western Cape. This is not to deny that individual members of the party, black or white, may harbour racist sentiments, as is the case in other political parties too, but at least at policy and public-practice level, the DA comes across as being non-racial. It is superfluous to point out that, given our progressive democratic constitution, ALL political parties in South Africa should be strictly non-racial in their policies and practices. This is not the case, however, which is why the DA stands out as being the exception.

Unfortunately the resignations referred to earlier, specifically Mashaba’s, have dented this non-racial approach seriously. What does it matter, after all, in a party — or a country, for that matter — that is supposedly non-racial and democratic, whether Helen Zille, Phumzile Van Damme (who fortunately does not appear to intend jumping ship as well), or any other of its members, regardless of race, gender or culture, served in any of its leadership positions? The very fact that people like Mashaba (and there are probably many others) still think in racial terms is a saddening commentary on, and incompatible with, the putative non-racial character of the DA. The only political party that will truly be able to unite the people of this country will be one that is consistently non-racial, and therefore able to inspire in its members a conviction that all South Africans, despite their racial, cultural, gender and other differences, are equally able, and entitled, to fulfil those kinds of duties that are required of individuals in leadership positions.

I know what Mashaba would say in response to my argument — that race matters. And I would admit that it does, but only because of the ideological connotations attaching to race and different races. My own experience in South Africa has consistently been that, if one treats another person as a person, as another human being, in the first place, instead of being prejudiced on the basis of that person’s race, the reciprocal treatment of oneself by that person is usually similar. And I don’t mean that one should in any way only ‘pretend’ that people of other races and cultures are your equals as humans, even if there are many people who do exactly that for purposes of profiting from the business support of people belonging to other races and cultures. What I mean is that, as human beings, we ARE equal, despite our salient differences and beliefs, so that treating each other as ‘equals’ in that sense — as well as its related sense of being ‘equal before the law’ — is the obvious way to arrive at a position where everyone can agree to contribute constructively to building a stable, productive, ecologically aware and ethically accountable society in South Africa.

I know that many readers are thinking something like ‘Dream on!’, and it is easy to lapse into cynicism and pessimism in the light of the dire condition of South Africa’s economy, as well as a host of other areas of concern. However, it is precisely because of the fact that the country currently faces many problems that I am arguing in favour of a non-racial mindset. Without it, the pervasive mistrust accompanying racist attitudes will just make matters worse, not only for the DA, but for everyone. And make no mistake: they are pretty bad. Just take note of this report as a wake-up call, for example. Here is an excerpt from it:

‘South Africa is on a path of destruction and is on its way to becoming an “unhappy country” like Zimbabwe and Venezuela.
This is the view of Efficient Group founder and chief economist Dawie Roodt, who was speaking at an event hosted by the Free Market Foundation.
‘Roodt said that while unhappy countries – where their economies are destroyed — are not all the same, there is a similar pattern on how the economic destruction takes place.
1. Destroy the existing capital in the country.
2. Frighten the taxpayers by continuing to increase taxes.
3. Scare savers by targeting their money.
4. The country tries to inflate itself out of debt.
‘Roodt said the destruction of a country’s economy always ends the same, with high levels of inflation.’

In all likelihood this kind of report will induce pessimism in readers; my point is that, unless we set aside racially divisive opinions of the kind expressed by Herman Mashaba – whose record as mayor of Johannesburg is nevertheless, by all accounts, an excellent one — we shall never reach the point where South Africans trust one another sufficiently to be able to tackle the problems facing the country in a constructive, non-race-oriented, united manner.

I know that this is easier said than done. I myself have been, and still am, very critical of the ruling party, the ANC, but I do believe that there are people in the ANC who also want the people of South Africa to prosper, despite others in the party ostensibly doing their level best to sink the country (like Baleka Mbete, with her brainless comments in a recent Al Jazeera interview).

There is good reason to be critical of the ANC, which has, in its more than 25 years of rule, dragged South Africa further and further into the quagmire. This was evident in what Andrew Donaldson wrote in 2015, based on his interview with R.W Johnson regarding the publication of Johnson’s book, How Long Will South Africa Survive? Significantly, his summary of the interview included the following prognostication on Johnson’s part:

‘Unemployment would continue to soar. The budget and trade deficits would continue to rise. Foreign investment along with domestic capital would continue to leave the country. Downgrading by the ratings agencies would continue, resulting in the inevitable junk bond status. With that, the cost of our debt will sharply rise to a point where it may become impossible to service the debt at all.

‘Should these trends continue — “and currently they are continuing” — it was only a matter of time before government realised the headlong pitch into a debt trap could not be avoided without IMF assistance.’

Needless to repeat, if — or when — this point is reached, all the difference would be made by the question, whether the governing party would accept the IMF’s assistance, or decline it. Hence, it would be far better to avoid this choice altogether, and if South Africans wish to do so, they have to stop thinking in terms of race. We are all South Africans, and are together in the present mess. Only a concerted effort, as people who are different but equal, can get us out of it.

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