20 years of transformation

If the chattering classes think the ANC will be cut down to size next year, then they’ve got another think coming. Next year’s general election coincides with the 20th birthday of a full democracy in SA and will likely be fought over whether things have gotten better or worse for especially blacks, and how best to hasten equality of outcomes and opportunities for all races. That things have vastly improved for especially black Africans will be downplayed by some while others will call for more, not less, race-based law to hasten change.

South African politics has always come down to a contest between those who want a colour-blind society and those who think that race should play a pivotal role in determining societal outcomes. The former has its roots in something called “Cape liberalism”, a 19th century doctrine that placed emphasis on individual rather than group rights and whose political descendants can be found in today’s opposition Democratic Alliance.

Far stronger has been the idea of race-based law, notably in apartheid’s discriminatory policies of “separate development” and nowadays in various attempts at redress for this through things like racial quotas in the private sphere, affirmative action, employment equity, racial set-asides in the private sector, race-based tendering in the public sector, and company empowerment schemes.

For many whites, this reversion to race in law seems a betrayal of the negotiated deal that led to 1994’s inclusive democracy. They may have imagined that the fundamental objection to apartheid was precisely the racial exclusivities and basis of its law, and that the “rainbow nation” myth of Nelson Mandela’s initial presidential years its counterpoint.

Not so. A good part of the objection to apartheid had to do with the narrowness of its beneficiary base. The African National Congress, for one, thinks race-based law critical in reversing the consequences of apartheid’s racial exclusivity – for the ANC has little tradition of colour-blindness.

Set up in 1912 as a specifically black African formation, it would by mid-century operate in racially distinct “congresses”, only opening its membership to whites at the 1968 Morogoro conference. Whites had to wait until the ANC’s 1985 Kabwe conference before being allowed membership of its NEC. Even in power, few should imagine that ANC politicians referring to “our people” mean to include whites. For such an organisation in power, default to race law is perfectly compatible with a formally non-racial SA in the form of ends justifying means.

And if the ends are about normalising life’s chances across the racial smorgasbord, then the past 20 years have seen astonishing progress, a defiance of claims that black economic empowerment in its broadest forms has benefitted only a few and then only at the economic top. Never have South Africans, black and white, had it so good, and for black and especially black African society, this is truly a golden age.

The fact is that, in working to upend apartheid’s worst effects on most South Africans, BEE in its broadest forms has worked remarkably well. The positive effects of this, and associated progress that comes from people liberated from general legal and economic bondage, far outweighs any scandals that attach to the present regime. The ANC’s thumping victory in next year’s election will come as a surprise only to those who can’t see this transformation all around them.


Black SA takes off

(for simplicity, “African” refers to black Africans)

African proportion employed: +15% since 1994

African number employed: +97% since 1994

Top management:

2000: Africans 6%

2012: Africans 12%


2000: Africans 25%

2012: Africans 62%

Relative poverty 1996 to 2012:

Africans: -14%

Whites: -60%

Africans with matric:

1996: 50%

2012: 63%

Degrees and tech. diplomas by race:

1991: Africans 21%

2011: Africans 53%

Car ownership:

2004 to 2012: Africans +121%

Business ownership:

2002 to 2013: Africans +23%

Cellphone use:

2004 to 2012: Africans +223%
Source: SAIRR Fast Facts September 2013

– Paul Pereira (first published in The Citizen, 17 September 2013)

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