OPINION: We’ve been tricked into racism talk to distract us from real issues

A trick has been played upon South Africans: they are being misled into believing that the country has a problem with racism left over from apartheid. To explain the trick – suppose you catch a gentleman with his hand inside your pocket and notice that your wallet is missing. You ask: “Why is my wallet gone?” The gentleman points far down the street to another man, and yells: “He stole your wallet!”

The genius of that claim is that it rests in truth, and can even claim to be knowledge. In universities, it is common to define knowledge as “justified true belief”. As it happens, the white gentleman at the end of the street did indeed steal your wallet 20 years ago. So the assertion that he stole your wallet is justified, and it is true. You could justly claim to know the answer. Even so, it is a trick, because the reason your wallet is gone today has nothing to do with that stolen wallet 20 years ago.

Now, normally that trick would be obvious. But the man beside you adds a distraction. Pointing at the man down the street, he claims: “And he still has your wallet now!” A solution seems obvious: you just have to get the wallet back, and you go haring down the road. But that part of the story is untrue, because the man who actually had your wallet was standing beside you. Whistling, he goes on holiday to Dubai with your money.

In this example, “you” stands for ordinary South Africans, the pickpocket stands for those involved in state capture, allegedly the Guptas and corrupt politicians; and the man down the street stands for the old apartheid government. The claim that whites still have your wallet has its analogy in “white monopoly capital”, the claim that there are pots of money still stubbornly kept by white corporations that resisted economic transformation. A “radical economic transformation” is thus needed to at last separate these white businessmen from their ill-gotten gains and at last restore the resources of this country to the rightful owners.

But that claim to “white monopoly capital” is the untrue part. Doubtless, capitalism in its current stage often leads to abuse of monopoly power, but it isn’t totally white and it isn’t South African. When the Public Investment Corporation, which invests the pensions of individuals in the South African public sector, is counted, black private ownership of the JSE tops 60%. More telling, six of the top eight largest firms on the JSE are more than 75% owned by foreigners (and not whites – the current majority shareholder of Anglo is Indian).

Attempts to “radically transform” the economy will just make investors and foreign capital leave and collapse demand for shares of the JSE, severely impairing even the investments of government workers. It is thus not a credible economic policy in the short term, but a recipe for economic disaster.

The first way to fix this situation is to have a public that can sniff out propaganda and respond in the right way. A reliable way we teach this at universities is to ask, does the person making this claim have something to gain by my believing it? If they do, it’s wise to look deeper, even if their claim is true.

Secondly, it’s instructive to consider the context. The worsening of South Africa’s race relations, and the rhetoric of white monopoly capital, began about four years ago with the campaign by London PR company Bell Pottinger. Its aim was to distract us public from the Guptas as they pillaged state coffers. South Africans know in theory that that campaign happened, but have overlooked the fact that the plethora of stories that appeared in the media were in fact organised by Bell Pottinger or those connected to it, and were false or misleading. An example is the newspaper that published a decades-old picture of whites holding the apartheid South African flag beside a story about protests over farm murders.

The irony, indeed, is that Bell Pottinger’s campaign was dreamt up by white people in London in conjunction with immigrant entrepreneurs (the Guptas). South Africans who argue with other South Africans about racism are thus still doing the bidding of outside entities and, just like in colonial days, the underlying aim is still to extract wealth from South Africans and move it abroad.

It’s a trick any magician would be proud of – colonialism has been disguised as its opposite and is masquerading as the narrative against racism. Resisting “colonial” influences nowadays is thus better served by resisting the narrative of racism, and instead looking at what is actually going on around us.

Doing so in the case of the land issue is likewise revealing. That the expropriation is “without compensation” plays to the myth that those who have been resisting transformation by refusing to sell land can at last be overcome, and it will serve them right.

Complaints by journalists about the decision to amend the Constitution to allow such expropriation is portrayed in social media as resistance by white people to handing back land to poor black people.

This particular white person, and most who I know, feels it would be absolutely wonderful if poverty-stricken families could at last be given their own land. But after that, how do we provide the jobs, finance and relevant education so that nobody starves on their own land? The danger is that, when foreign investment leaves, there will be no money for such projects, and changing the Constitution risks doing exactly that.

So the land issue, just like the state capture attempt that preceded it, is especially not indicative of a division between black and white. It’s mainly a battle between the bad guys and the good guys, where the bad guys are trying to distract us by using the truly horrible effects of apartheid as a smokescreen. And it’s a conflict between two competing ways to economic transformation, that of “radical economic transformation”, which promises to take from whites to give to blacks without repairing our dysfunctional economy, and managed redistribution with growth, which aims to build a solid economy for South Africans of all colours. Only when South Africans see through the trick and realise that we are all being manipulated by outside powers can we begin to fight back and find solutions as a nation.

- Galetti is an academic recently returned from a postdoctoral research position at Yale University in the US

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