There is probably nothing as tiresome, irritating and reactionary in contemporary South African discourse as the knee-jerk accusation of racism in response to anything critical of the ANC government, of any black person or of any institution that happens to be managed by black people (in the broadest, Biko-esque sense of “black”).

Ironically, this knee-jerk, superficial and notoriously defensive use of the “race card” potentially sustains racism in that when real racism rears its ugly head, many will ignore it as the false “it is racist” cries have caused deaf ears to develop.

It is the South African equivalent of the sheep-herding boy who regularly — but falsely — claimed that a wolf was about to attack his sheep, thus provoking the community in his and the herd’s defence, only to discover that in fact, there was no wolf. When a wolf finally did attack his herd, the shepherd boy called for help, but no-one responded, believing that it was yet again a false cry. And the shepherd, his herd — and the community — suffered substantial loss.

One encounters “cry wolf” racism everywhere. In protecting corrupt officials. In deflecting official incompetence. In defence of the Nkandla compound. In justifying overnight wealth. More often than not, “cry wolf” racism is but a spurious attempt to silence criticism, to suppress freedom of expression and to manipulate the terms on which public debate occurs.

Now it would appear that even government is beginning to acknowledge and take action around various things that provoked widespread criticism in the past, and for which “cry wolf” racism was invoked as a defence.

The public service commission has indicated to parliament that corruption among public servants had cost the state nearly R1 billion in 2011/2012, with more than 4 000 public officials facing charges of corruption, fraud or theft. The diagnostic report of the national planning commission — not exactly a publication of the “white controlled media” — lists endemic corruption as one of the country’s key challenges. In the recent parliamentary debate on the president’s State of the Nation address, senior cabinet ministers — not MPs in the “white” opposition — bemoaned the huge expenditure on consultants, which reflects the lack of competencies within government, where thousands of officials are employed to do exactly the jobs for which consultants are contracted.

These ministers also promised to root out the practice of government employees forming companies that tendered for — and got — government work, thereby enriching themselves, their close friends and family members in the process. As a deterrent to corruption by government officials and companies doing business with government, the justice cluster has promised to “name and shame” corrupt public servants.

Legitimate criticism has not only been levelled by “white” critics who, by virtue of simply being white (the anti-apartheid credentials of some notwithstanding) are deemed to be racist, or past beneficiaries of apartheid, and therefore without moral foundation to “speak truth” to the (black) government of the day. Leading black (in the narrow, non-Biko-esque definition) figures have also been sharp critics of government incompetence, corruption and general failure to realise its many election promises.

Just this last week, Barney Pityana, former vice-chancellor of Unisa, wrote an open letter to President Jacob Zuma in which he stated that “we remain a long way from what Nelson Mandela promised in July 1993 when he said that ‘the time had come for us to address the burning question of feeding the millions in our country, clothing the millions that are naked, accommodating the millions that are homeless, and creating jobs for the millions who are unemployed’ ”. He writes further “clearly the president and his party lack the motivation, skills and ideas to transform this country into the haven of opportunity and prosperity that 1994 promised”. The purpose of the letter was to ask President Zuma to resign “in the interests of progress and development of our country”.

In a series of articles in City Press, Njabulo Ndebele masterfully dissected the lying and dishonesty around the exorbitant public expenditure on President Zuma’s personal home in KwaZulu-Natal.

When launching her party political platform, Mamphela Ramphele stated “our country is at risk because self-interest has become the primary driver of many of those in positions of authority who should be focussed on serving the public … corruption, nepotism and patronage have become the hallmarks of the conduct of many in public service”.

Even a close ally of the ANC, Cosatu’s general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi said in an address “we’re headed for a predator state where a powerful, corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas are increasingly using the state to get rich”. He further stated that just like a hyena whose daughters eat first, so, in a predator state, the chief of state’s family eats first. And this was before the Nkandla scandal.

There are not a few within the ruling elite who believe that such criticism by progressives should not be levelled publicly as it “provides ammunition to the enemy”. The truth is that “the enemy” is within; the external “enemy” — such as it is — needs little ammunition to critique the ruling party as these failures are writ large not least in the daily protests of ordinary people, the primary constituency of the ruling party.

If it is not already clear, it should be emphasised that incompetent civil servants are not criticised because they are black, but because they are not doing the jobs for which they are being paid handsomely, thereby compromising service delivery and the substantial transformation of poor people’s lives.

Civil servants and politicians who commit fraud and are dishonest are not exposed because they are black, but because they are stealing from the public purse, because they are enriching themselves at the expense of the poor, because their primary concern is themselves and those close to them, rather than the interests of the majority of our people.

Individuals who become extraordinarily wealthy in a short space of time are not criticised because racists don’t want black people to be rich, but because in a society that has become increasingly unequal, where unemployment has skyrocketed and where most people continue to live below the poverty line, it is obscene that so few people should become so rich due largely to little other than being part of a political elite.

It is not racist to be scandalised by the application of millions of rands from the public purse to the president’s personal home, but rather because when millions of people continue to be homeless, when the houses that have been built post-1994 are falling apart, when those houses reflect the dehumanising designs and spatial arrangements of the apartheid era, it is completely unacceptable that the president — essentially a public servant — has his massive home compound further upgraded by more than R200 million!

The government is not criticised because it is black, it is because it is the government and, among other things, it has presided over the decline in education, in health services, in employment, in security of its citizens and in life expectancy.

Post-1994, it was morally and politically correct to transform the management and governance of the civil service and a host of other state-funded institutions so that these better reflected the demographics — in terms of gender, culture, “race”, language, disability etc — of our society, than that inherited from our apartheid past.

Nearly 20 years later, there are at least three conclusions that we can draw from these changes:

a. While there are many committed and able civil servants at all levels of government, there is also a substantial number who simply do not have the skills, commitment and experience to do the jobs required of them. In such cases, superficial demographic transformation of the civil service has severely compromised and even retarded the substantial transformation of our society in the interests of the greater majority of our citizens.

b. It is not necessarily true that black civil servants — by virtue of their historical and racial identification with the masses of South Africans — will act in the best interests of the majority. The numerous fraud, theft and corruption cases against, and the internal tenderpreneurship of many civil servants reflect greater self-interest, rather than the interests of those who need and expect effective public service.

c. That more than R90 billion has been spent on external consultants by government departments reflects not only the lack of capacity within government, but also a substantial loss to the public purse as taxpayers are paying double (government officials and consultants) for the same job. Such resources could be better spent on the delivery of key services.

The struggle was not to replace white snouts at the trough of public funds with black snouts, it was to change our society so that the overwhelming majority of people could enjoy their fundamental rights and freedoms as human beings and as enshrined in the Constitution. That struggle continues precisely because many beneficiaries of the current system regarded the struggle simply as one defined by race, that it was an “anti-apartheid” struggle rather than a struggle for economic equity and social justice in which “race” was an (albeit important) adjunct. For them, eliminating structural apartheid was the open-season catalyst for a few to enrich themselves, to acquire wealth “like whites did”, to compete materially “with whites” and to enjoy the social and other consumptive benefits “preserved for whites only” under apartheid. For this reason, overnight wealth and self-enrichment are defended and justified largely through the prism of “race”, for when these are measured against the ideal of a better life for all, such wealth and enrichment are morally and politically indefensible.

Is there racism in contemporary South Africa? Absolutely! Much of it is a legacy of our past and yet we need to confront the uncomfortable truth that a number of post-1994 actions and practices of those in authority have actually reinforced, confirmed or inspired racism. And this is not simply racism between the white and black protagonists of the apartheid era, but also between different “population groups” within South Africa, as well as between South Africans and people from other African countries.

Notwithstanding this, there is an enormous number of people — of all “population groups” — who are just getting on and doing things, perhaps not to change the world or our society as a whole, but who are making a difference where they can in the lives of one or two individuals, or in sections of communities. I have no doubt that there is incredible goodwill and willingness on the part of many to contribute to building a society in which the quality of life for most, if not all, of our citizens is improved. But many have been alienated, debilitated and marginalised by the ruling elite’s love and application of cry-wolf racism to defend, advance and benefit itself.

Writing before the Mangaung conference in December last year, Tony Yengeni, a senior ANC member bemoaned the way in which ANC members were contesting positions of power. “One has watched with dismay as inflamed passions have closed the ears and minds of competing groups to opposing arguments and ideas. Each group fervently believes it is right and all the others are wrong … one outcome is that those who state their views frankly and fearlessly can immediately be labelled and derided as ‘right-wing opportunists’, ‘ultra-leftists’, ‘populists’ or even ‘enemy agents’.”

Based on this, it would appear that currently within the ANC, this is how critics or competing arguments are dealt with, not by engaging with the substance of the argument in an intellectually rigorous manner, but simply by dismissing the holder of the opposing view with some negative label. This is exactly the manner in which “cry-wolf” racism is used — smear the critic, and then one does not have to deal with the argument. Another example is Gwede Mantashe’s pathetic attempt to ridicule Ramphele’s venture into politics as some kind of American imperialist plot in southern Africa.

For the sake of our democracy-in-progress, for the sake of the real fight against racism in all its forms, and most importantly, for the sake of the substantial transformation of our society so that all our citizens enjoy a better life, “cry wolf” racism and its censorial intent must be rejected, and all citizens need to speak out and act in defence of the fundamental rights and freedoms of all.



Mike van Graan

Mike van Graan is the executive director of the African Arts Institute and is an adviser to Arterial...

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