What do the election of Jacob Zuma and Eskom’s power cuts have in common? Both bring out the racial demons buried just beneath the surface of the minds of many white South Africans.

It was only a matter of time before the power cuts brought the racial creepy-crawlies out of the woodwork. And so, on radio talk shows and over suburban dinner tables, more than a few white folks have hastened to reach for their handiest crutch in times of stress — blaming black folks.

Their first and most obvious explanation for the outages is that black people do not know how to run large electricity suppliers — the power cuts, one white man told a radio audience, were “typical of African governments”. Their second and equally obvious response was to blame what another white caller called “talent shedding” — replacing white people (who are always assumed to know what to do) with black people (who are always assumed not to). Affirmative action, he insisted, had denuded Eskom of capacity, plunging us into darkness.

All of this is, to put it bluntly, nonsense.

The reason we have power failures is that, in the late 1990s, the government decided not to allow Eskom to build new capacity to meet demand. President Thabo Mbeki has acknowledged this and apologised for it.

The decision had nothing to do with African incompetence. It stemmed, rather, from too great an enthusiasm for fashionable economic ideas: the government was eager to cut spending and was also hoping to privatise Eskom — spending on new plants, it hoped, could be left to private owners.

Things did not, of course, turn out according to plan: free-marketeers say it was because our electricity was too cheap to offer investors a good deal; others believe it was because privatising Eskom was never going to fly politically. But, at the time the government took the decision it was, ironically, buying into precisely the ideas that white business pundits were promoting — privatisation and public spending cuts.

If we wanted to put a racial spin on the decision, we could say it happened because a black government paid too much attention to silly white ideas. A sensible, non-racial explanation would simply point out that, like many other governments around the world, ours, in this case, bought into a market fundamentalism that has landed us (like many other societies) in trouble.

As for the “talent shedding” argument, it is true that Eskom let some white electricians go. But the decision had nothing to do with race — having been told it could not increase capacity, it had less use for technical staff and so had to shed skills. The cause was, again, the decision not to increase capacity.

Nor is there evidence that black technicians are worse than whites one. For what it is worth, my own experience with the black electrical technicians sent out to my area is of prompt and efficient service. If Jo’burg’s black technicians are the product of “talent shedding”, we need a whole lot more of it.

So a problem that has absolutely nothing to do with race is being filtered through the minds of many whites as further evidence of what happens when black people run things. Underpinning this rush to judgement is a template of how this country is going to turn out that seems almost hard-wired into the minds of many whites — one which assumes that, because black people are in charge, we are certain to fail.

For many whites, however smart the black people in positions of power may seem, our descent into conflict, corruption and incompetence is inevitable: it is only a matter of time before “civilisation” ends and we end up as “another African basket case”. Because this attitude is deeply ingrained, it is always lurking just beneath the surface, ready to emerge whenever a setback makes it seem as if the nightmare is about to become reality.

It is this attitude which explains why some white people are so quickly plunged into despair. It prompted some to flee and others to hoard groceries at the prospect of majority rule. And, however well things go, it pops out again and again. And it is a major reason for much of the reaction to Zuma’s ascendancy.

There are, of course, many committed non-racialists, black and white, who believe Zuma ought not to be president. But some of the hysteria that has greeted his rise is far too emotional to be explained simply by a concern about his morals and fitness to rule: it can surely only be explained by the likelihood that Zuma represents for many white people the hordes who are bound to take over.

For them, the suave, Western-educated leader in a business suit is being replaced by a man who wears animal skins, sings about machine guns, has more than one wife and learned to read and write in prison. It is hard to imagine a prospect more likely to set the nightmare machine at the back of many white minds working overtime.

No matter that we have no idea what sort of president Zuma would be. No matter that the greatest butcher of the 20th century, Hitler, was known to wear business suits and perhaps the greatest saint, Gandhi, wore homespun cloth around his loins. The descent into savagery has, for these people, begun.

This may explain why some observers have noted a rise in fairly crude white racism recently. People who harbour very basic prejudices seem more willing to express them in private — and, it seems, in public: former rugby captain Corne Krige is, for example, currently free to express prejudices about black people which we thought had disappeared from public view a decade ago. While it is never wise to reduce any event or process to one cause, it seems reasonable to suggest that Zuma’s emergence as a possible state president has stirred prejudices that many white people have been suppressing for years.

Whatever the reason, we have plenty of evidence that the prejudices that created apartheid are still deeply rooted in this society. This should serve as a reminder that much work is needed before gut racism ceases to shape the attitudes of many South Africans.

It should also cause us to rethink an error many non-racialists made when we became a democracy.

Before 1994, much effort was devoted to tackling bigotry — all manner of programmes were devised to help white people confront their prejudices and recognise that talent and ability have nothing to do with race. But, because many of these efforts were meant to prepare whites for political change, they ended in the 1990s because it was assumed that the task was completed.

We now know that it wasn’t. The need to confront and combat prejudice is as great now as it was when we became a democracy. And so we must revive — and improve — the programmes aimed at challenging deeply ingrained racism. We must again place the fight against attitudes of racial superiority at the centre of our society’s agenda. The task is neither easier nor less urgent than it was when apartheid ruled.


  • Steven Friedman is a research associate at Idasa and visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University. He is a newspaper columnist and a media commentator on South African politics. His academic speciality is the study of democracy. He wrote Building Tomorrow Today, a study of the trade-union movement, and edited two studies of the South African transition.


Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a research associate at Idasa and visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University. He is a newspaper columnist and a media commentator on South African politics. His academic speciality...

Leave a comment