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Are whites committed to equality?

By Xhanti Payi

Is it possible to say the public education system has collapsed without saying there are no good and effective public schools in the country? Is it possible to say black people in SA are poor without being understood to mean that there are no rich black people in SA? Is it also possible to say white people refuse to do their part in the reform agenda without dismissing the immense contribution of many white people in this regard?

The recent furore over the “racist” employment policies of Woolworths exposes a much less evident although talked about phenomenon on the use of economic power to hold back legitimate transformation in our society. Since the demise of apartheid as a formal and official system of repression many of us who had the ambition to thrive in the main economy have found it stringent and with strong barriers — many of which are covert. There still exists a strong force to hold the economic establishment intact by using the very economic power and networks that characterise it.

My earliest memories as a young boy during the last days of apartheid are of being at political rallies without the permission or knowledge of my parents. I would peer through the legs of “comrades” carrying wooden guns in an open field as Winnie Mandela addressed them. I remember strikes and boycotts of white-owned shops and businesses in an effort to use whatever power black people had to fight against the racist and brutal system of apartheid. I remember that people who would ignore boycotts and buy home items from these shops would have their grocery bags emptied in the street and sometimes force-fed what they’d bought, including cooking oil and dish-washing liquid.

In a bizarre and shocking twist, the Woolworths boycott brigade — as termed by City Press editor Ferial Haffajee in her column of the same name — is employing the same tactics as an offensive against the “racist” employment equity policies of Woolworths.

It’s no longer worth repeating the reasons we need employment equity policies across the economic system in this country. Also not worth any reassertion is how much racism still exists in South Africa and who is hurt by it. But perhaps it is worth asking some questions about Woolworths’ alleged racist practices against white South Africans — which one would guess the Woolworths boycott brigade has asked and answered.

Have they asked themselves how many white cashiers they have seen at a Woolworths till as the lady from the roof calls out “next customer please”? If they have, do they suppose the answer is related to the fact that white people are prevented from working those tills because of the racist employment equity practices of Woolworths? Have they asked themselves how many black people serve on the executive committee of Woolworths? Is the fact that the executive committee is predominantly white a result of their racist policies to exclude white people in a majority black country?

The worst of this situation is not so much the unfair accusation against Woolworths but the deliberate distortion of and repudiation of the process to transform South Africa. It makes the serious and dangerous assertion that these groups are not only uninterested in the building of an equal society, which we all agreed to as the basis of a New South Africa, but will stand in its way. It is an assertion that all proud South Africans must repudiate.

In his book The Social Contract 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau made this point: (which could be related directly to the social contract South Africans entered into in order to form the New SA) “Under the pact by which we enter into civil society everyone makes a total alienation of all his rights … the rights they alienate are the rights based on might, the rights they acquire are rights based on law.”

In our context we said we agreed to the supreme law of the Constitution that forces us to give up might, which is based on physical force and would have seen us descend into civil war. We also abandoned the use and abuse of economic might with all its unfair practices in our economic system and aimed to redress whatever legacy remained. It should be said, in parenthesis, that we committed to becoming a nation of laws.

These policies, which are now called racist, flow from the Constitution, which organisations such as Solidarity claim to support and protect. This document, which represents a solemn social pact among all SA citizens belongs to all who live in it. It further says that because we recognise our twisted and perverse past, we would all work together, making sacrifices so that we can live in a country characterised by peace, unity and justice. Through this Constitution we also said that all property and dignity of every South African would be protected.

That right to the protection of private property ensured that economic power would remain set at the hands of those who held it at the time of adoption, despite how they came to accumulate it. We therefore would rely, largely, on the goodwill and integrity of those who had economic power to adhere and promote our social contract.

The Woolworths boycott brigade has torn that contract before our very eyes. These people (including those who support and fund organisations such as Solidarity, which has on many occasions used its economic might to disrupt the process of transformation) said they absolutely refuse to support and, with personal sacrifices, promote the contract we all signed in the name of a peaceful and just society. A contract that would with time guarantee not just economic prosperity, but security for all South Africans.

As the Marikana tragedy has shown, we dare not abandon our responsibilities to live up to the social contract that is our Constitution, which we signed together as we migrated from the old state into the new one.

We dare not put our personal interest ahead of the common good because those actions expose us to anarchy, which would be the situation we sought to avoid when we said we agreed to the ideals and spirit of the Constitution.

The use of economic power, as has been shown by the Woolworths brigade, and the covert actions of the empowered across our corporate establishment are putting our future as a country in jeopardy because they’re telling the majority of South Africans, who without their goodwill and commitment, would only rely on other forms of might to force change.

When Nelson Mandela stood before the millions of poor and disenfranchised South Africans and pleaded with them to be patient and avoid vengeance, which would have seen our country go up in flames, he was not promising black South Africans permanent seats at the Woolworths till as cashiers while only a minority of blacks would have seats at the executive table of that corporation. He was saying together, through great pain and personal sacrifice, we would in time secure a more equitable and prosperous SA.

Abandoning that agreement, no matter how small you think you are, and no matter how much personal culpability you think should rest on your shoulders for the horrible acts and legacy of apartheid, will see us in the untenable situation our heroes sought to avoid.

No doubt employment equity does on occasion disadvantage white South Africans. But it must be understood as a personal sacrifice we must all make to live in a good society characterised by peace and prosperity. All citizens in all societies make personal sacrifices for themselves, their children and in the name of national pride for living in a progressive and prosperous society.

The acts of the Woolworths brigade makes it possible to say that only black people are living up to the contract we made. A contract not to let anger and its bitter fruits get in the way of the hope for a better future despite the continued disadvantage we face and the legacy of a system that disempowered us.

If it does not soon become possible to make general statements about the goodwill of white South Africans and their evident commitment to an equal society we all stand on the verge of a serious calamity.

Xhanti Payi is an economist.

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